Saturday, April 4, 2015

Army Football Preview: Spring Training

Spring has finally sprung, and that means that football season is far in the distance.  However, I finally committed and became an Army Football Season Ticket Holder, so like a big, fat idiot, I am following the team’s progress as closely as I possibly can.  Word around the Internet is that second year head coach Jeff Monken has put together the best recruiting class in recent Army Football history, so now the team’s return to glory is all but inevitable.  Well that’s the hope, anyway.  Unfortunately, all those recruits are unlikely to do much in the coming season while the season itself promises to be quite a bit more challenging than was the season past.  
Can Army win four games?  Can they win six and somehow sneak into a bowl game?  These are the questions that keep Army Football Season Ticket Holders such as myself lying awake at night.

This is the old Army Sports logo.  Word on the streets says that
Army is rebranding in 2015.  I don't know what the new logos
will look like, but I've always prefered this one to the current one.

The 2015 season comes with more than its share of questions, starting with who’s going to play quarterback.  I got the feeling that Coach Monken wanted to make AJ Shurr the starter last season, but Shurr neither played well enough to take the position outright nor managed to stay consistently healthy.  In fact, he was knocked out of three games.  For all that I personally think that Shurr has a better arm than did last year’s actual starter, Angel Santiagoas well as better overall athletic ability, Santiago was a gladiator.  He made better decisions in the option, and he stayed on the field.  This didn’t leave Monken much choice, but it’s worth acknowledging that Santiago played better and kept his spot based on merit.  Now, I don’t want to critique Shurr too harshly here because I can well imagine some asshole Old Grad critiquing my style back when I was on the Army Swim Team, and I’m well aware of how much there would have been to critique.  However, if I’m Coach Monken, I’m desperately trying to develop another quarterback right now.  Even if Shurr shows exemplary command of the option next season, it seems unrealistic to expect that he’ll be able to start all twelve games.  For what it’s worth, he’s out right now following shoulder surgery.  That bodes ill for his long term availability.
Current logo, presented for contrast.
Army has a few options at quarterback, but it remains to be seen if any of them can actually play.  Matthew Kaufman ran the scout team offense last season, and from what I’ve read, he’s running with the first team now.  However Scout.Com describes Kaufman as “a slower, left hand version of Angel Santiago,” and that’s not meant in love.  Meanwhile, Ahmad Bradshaw may be the most athletic quarterback on the roster—he ran a reported 4.3 in high school—but he’s a converter running back who couldn’t play with team last season due to “academy-related” reasons.  I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it probably involved a shitload of tours of Central Area.  This is liable to make him a hero to a certain kind of Old Grad (me), but it doesn’t actually help.  Coach Monken has repeatedly stressed the need for better speed this offseason, so I kind of think that maybe Bradshaw has the inside track on actually starting in 2015 as long as he can stay out of trouble and learn the offense.  Reports have been favorable, but spring practices are not live D-1 FBS games.

The Triple Option, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Option 1: the QB hands off to the Fullback.  This is the Fullback Dive.
Option 2: the QB keeps the ball.  This is the Quarterback Keeper.
Option 3: the QB pitches the ball outside, usually to the Tailback.

The other pressing question on offense revolves around the fullback.  Army wasn’t very good last season, but FB Larry Dixon was easily the team’s best player, and he played well.  He gained over a thousand yards, and not to put too fine a point on it, but when he and the Fullback Dive were working, Army’s offense worked.  When Dixon couldn’t find any space in the middle, though, Santiago and the rest of the team rarely took things outside with any success, either.  But Dixon is graduating this year, and anyway, Coach Monken has said that there was a lot more that he wanted to implement in the offense last year, but the team just wasn’t good enough.  As an example, the team abandoned the shotgun snap last season because the center couldn’t snap consistently in that formation.  Meanwhile, Coach Monken himself is a former running backs coach, and if he’s lost his star fullback, he still has some talent on offense, even if most of it is at tailback right now.
This isn't bad by itself, but it hardly
reflects the heritage of a school
founded in 1802.
There’s a whole issue here.  How do you replace Larry Dixon?  Answer: you don’t.  But if you have a faster quarterback and a bunch of really fast tailbacks, you don’t necessarily have to replace Dixon with a one-for-one exchange.  Instead, you start running more outside—typically this is desirable in the option, anyway—and then you can get away with bringing up your reliable but maybe not superlative fullback Matt Giachinta.  I don’t want to knock Giachinta because he played well in limited opportunities last season, but if he has the kind of success Dixon had, it’ll be a monstrously surprising breakout year.
While we’re talking offense, I should mention that the offensive line is projected to be much improved over last season.  This starts with firstie right tackle Justin Gilbert’s return from injury (he missed all of last season), but it continues by virtue of the fact that last year’s O-Line was a patchwork construction all season long.  Between injuries and ineffectiveness, the O-Line had very little consistency in 2014, and in the end, quite a few plebes wound up starting.  Those guys have now had a season together and gained some legitimate veteran leadership as well.  These things together ought to make a titanic difference in the way the entire offense plays.
In some ways, the defense is in a similar position to the O-Line.  By the end of the season, the team’s primary contributors were first-year starters.  Inside linebackers Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King are both returning.  Timpf is a yearling now, and he led the team in tackles in 2014 after spending his entire plebe year on the scout team.  D-Lineman John Voit is currently a plebe, but he was excellent as well by the end of last season—and he’s looking to make big strides in his first full year as an actual starter.

On defense, the big questions are in the secondary.  Last season’s safeties were questionable at best, and anyway, almost all of Army’s best athletes were on offense.  This led to a pattern we saw repeated over and over again, i.e. the team would hang tough for a half or even for three quarters, but then they’d start getting blown out at the end of games.  They also gave up far too many long passes over the middle of the field.  Both the Rice and the Air Force games were competitive until secondary breakdowns in the middle put those contests out of reach.  Army had quality starters in cornerbacks Chris Carnegie and Josh Jenkins, but there wasn’t much depth behind them, nor were they necessarily getting a lot of help from the rest of the backfield.  To address the issue, Coach Monken has moved former receiver Xavier Moss from offense to defense, where he’s now a starting safety.  So far, reports are good.  In fact, the entire defense promises to be more athletic this year, although this one move still leaves many questions.  For example, Army needs to develop a starting nickel cornerback.  Similarly, they’ve done quite a bit of recruiting for the D-Line, especially at defensive end, but the new guys still need to show up and play, and that’s the hard part—especially at West Point.  

I expect that Army’s defense will be better in 2015, but that’s not necessarily saying much.  It could be that the team makes a step-change at defense, and that this changes everything.  Or it could be that the defense is merely more athletic but that their inexperience shows over time.  Given the uncertainties in the offense, the defense’s play is liable to be the contributing factor to Army’s success or failure as a team.
As of this writing, Army has something like one hundred sixteen offers out to various high school football players around the country.  116!  Granted, most of those guys probably won’t enter the Academy directly, they’ll head to the Prep School.  Still, that is a shitload of recruits.  The entire football team is only one hundred three guys right now.  I have no idea what Army’s success rate is in terms of recruits accepting offers, nor do I know what percentage of guys succeed in getting appointments after spending a year at the Prep School.  My memories tell me that it’s something like half of the Prep School that actually enters the Academy, but those memories may not be reliable, and in any event, that also includes almost all of the prior service guys (and gals) coming out of the Regular Army.  This may skew the acceptance percentage.  Football players aren’t necessarily selected at the same rate that prior-service soldiers are.  
And yet…  WOW!  That is a shitload of recruits.  If a third of them wind up actually playing for Army, Coach Monken will have succeeded in building the nucleus of his program for years to come.
It’s worth noting, then, that Army held a Pro Day this year, attended by a scout from the NY Jets.  Fullback Larry Dixon did twenty-five reps at 225 and ran a 4.76 40-yard dash.  Meanwhile, alumni quarterback Trent Steelman (now listed as a wide receiver) was recently released early from his Regular Army commitment and was therefore allowed to compete in this year’s NFL Veterans’ Combine.  I have mixed feelings about this, but it can only help football recruiting.  Reality is that the Army is having layoffs, and though it doesn’t make much financial sense, if the Army’s not going to use Steelman’s talents, there’s no reason not to let the guy pursue his dream.  The Baltimore Ravens offered Steelman a free agent contract when he left West Point, but of course, he couldn’t take it at the time because he had to fulfill his commitment.  Now he’s been released to the Reserves, but whether or not he has more football in his future is very much an open question.  However, I expect Larry Dixon probably has some more football in his future if he’s released early, which would again help with recruiting.  I don’t love the precedent this sets, but what can you do?
Army’s annual spring game is Saturday, April 18th.  Being an Army Football Season Ticket Holder, I got invited to the game—and to a special pre-game pep talk hosted by none other than Coach Monken himselfbut of course, can’t make it.  My buddy and I are taking our wives and our kids on a tour of Gettysburg that weekend.  I want to call this tour a Staff Ride, but I feel like calling it that would require teaching my kids the Military Decision Making Process, and I am nowhere near that hardcore.  However, I did write-up a twenty-four page PowerPoint presentation[1] to teach our respective kids the basic tactics of the battle, so if you’re wondering… I still represent occasionally.  I bring this up because if you happen to make it to the game, I’d love to hear how it goes or what Coach Monken had to say beforehand.  Truthfully, I’d much rather go to Gettysburg than to West Point to watch a scrimmage, but at a certain level it irks me that here I am, missing my very first Army Football Season Ticket Holder perk.
Go Army!  BEAT NAVY!!!

[1] This shared version has personal information redacted.  To get anything out of it, however, you probably need to read the speaker’s notes below each slide.  The shared version is a Google Drive presentation.

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