Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Army Football Preview: Summer Scrimmage

Army Football held its first summer scrimmage this past weekend, and as a season ticket holder, I got invited.  I was joking with my buddy Chris later that same day about him driving up from DC to watch football practice, and he surprised me--astonished me, really--by saying that he’d love to come up, he just needed to check his schedule.  Plans were quickly made, and we wound up meeting at Columbus Circle about 9:30 Saturday morning for the drive up to West Point.

Me: Chris, this is a lot of driving, man.  You want me to drive for a while?
Chris: Dude, I’m an aviator.  This is nothing.
Me: Umm…  You’re not wearing diapers, are you?
Suffice it to say that Chris is gonna need to be on Crew Rest for a day or so once he finally gets home.
So.  Two Old Grads meet in New York, and of course, this involves detailed scheduling and precise execution.  I hit Columbus Circle exactly sixty seconds after Chris exited the Lincoln Tunnel.  He didn’t even have to stop to pick me up; he just slowed down and rolled down his window, and I leaped across the hood like Luke Duke and shimmied on into his car.  A few tourists stared open-mouthed, of course, but this is New York City.  That’s hardly the weirdest thing they’re gonna see that day.  Or even on that block.
An anonymous Old Grad's "Go Army!" jeep parked in A Lot.
The new cadet athletics symbol at the 50 yard line at Blaik Field.
I enjoyed the drive up to the Academy quite a bit.  We talked and got caught up, and that’s always fun.  We finally hit Highland Falls a little after eleven, stopped at a bagel place for a bite to eat, and then drove on post.  My emailed instructions said to park in A Lot, which is right above the stadium, and that was awesome because I don’t think I’d ever actually parked there before.  However, Gate 1 was the only gate that was open to the stadium, so we wound up trekking all the way around Michie Stadium on foot in what was by then blistering August sunshine.  It’s been beautiful around here for the last two weeks or so--granted, I live in Coastal Connecticut, so it’s rarely as hot here as it can get at USMA--but Saturday kicked off what’s probably going to be the last true heat wave of the summer.  Speaking personally, I didn’t particularly mind either the walk or the heat, but most of the other folks who’d came to watch practice were parents of new plebe football players, and many of them looked like they were about to start melting.
I should have been expecting to see all of those new West Point Parents.
A typical Old Grad still on active duty, Chris
didn't put on his #goARMY shirt and hat until
we actually got to the stadium.
West Point has its own seasons.  The Corps scatters after Graduation Week, heading to parts unknown for enrichment studies, Army schools, internships with the Regular Army, and all manner of other activities.  Camp Buckner starts for the Yearlings maybe two weeks later, and Beast Barracks kicks off for the incoming class right around the first of July.  Reorganization Week is the week that everyone finally comes back, and for plebes, it’s Hell on Earth.  Speaking personally, I thought that it was much worse than any part of Beast.  Why?  Because all of the upperclassmen are back, most of them are bored, and the company’s plebes are suddenly responsible for an amazing amount of new duties and associated nonsense.  Folks are moving into their rooms, and in my day, we used to have Book Issue, and there’s practice for the Acceptance Day parade, but most of what passes for entertainment comes at the expense of the new class.  As a plebe, I remember being so busy Reorgy Week that I didn’t get a chance to take a shower for four full days!  Fortunately, Reorgy Week isn’t even a full week for the new class, and at the end of it, they’re on a more-or-less normal schedule for the first time since entering Beast Barracks.  West Point was therefore jammed with plebes and their parents this weekend, and that surprised me, but like I said, I should have known that it would be like that.  For many parents, this weekend was really the first time that they’d seen their son or daughter in seven weeks.
Nick Miller's father took this picture while the team did warm-ups.
I really enjoyed meeting the Millers.
We wound up sitting with the parents of #75 Nick Miller (‘19), a plebe right tackle out of Portland, Oregon.  Chris and I both really liked the Millers, but this whole military thing was almost entirely new to them, and I got the feeling that they were only partly interested in seeing Nick’s development as a football player while being at least equally concerned with his development in every other phase of Academy life.  This was not unreasonable.  As an example, Nick entered West Point at 260 lbs but lost at least fifteen pounds over the course of Beast, and his folks mentioned that he’d been struggling a little with running as well.  Nick is obviously a talented football player--this was especially obvious when the team ran to his side during the scrimmage--but I doubt he’s ever done much endurance running before.  This is one of the challenges of Academy sports and football in particular.  It’s always tough for incoming freshmen to make an impact in Division I football, but that’s doubly true when the O- and D-Linemen are also struggling to hump rucksacks for hours at a time and to become at least moderately successful endurance runners as well.  These things are radically different than the short bursts of power required to play football at the highest levels.
The quarterbacks are in red.  Yes, that is a lot of quarterbacks.
The scrimmage itself was interesting.  Last I looked, Army had seventy-nine new plebes and sixty-seven upperclassmen on its football team.  Chris and I joked that this was going to impact Army’s Rugby and Sprint Football programs the most, creating sustained dominance in each sport via recruits who don’t ultimately contribute to the actual football team.  Regardless, the sheer size of the incoming class means two things right off the bat.  One, Army is rebuilding, but in two or three years, we may well have a dramatically improved squad.  Two, not all of the kids who were recruited to play football are actually going to make the team.  In which case, it’s a good thing they chose Army and not State University.  At least at West Point, they have some high-quality options off the field.
Perhaps the biggest reason that Chris and I actually went to the scrimmage was to see and evaluate the play of the various quarterbacks.  Army is in the midst of a quarterback competition, primarily between Firstie AJ Schurr and Yearling Ahmad Bradshaw.  Chris noted that if Army is truly rebuilding, then maybe the team ought to start one of the younger QBs.  However, considering the program’s lack of success over the last decade or so, I think Coach Jeff Monken and his staff are under considerable pressure to win sooner rather than later.  This means playing the best available player, I think, and if that turns out to be a younger guy like Bradshaw, that’s simply an unlooked-for bonus.
Opinion varied on the quarterbacks.  Chris and I both thought that Schurr looked the best overall.  He certainly threw the ball the best.  However, the knock on Schurr has always been twofold.  First, he’s a little injury-prone, which is bad for an option quarterback, and second, he has a tendency to hold the ball.  He can be a little late with his decision to pitch, resulting in some negative plays where opportunities might otherwise have presented themselves.  Against this, though, is the reality that Schurr clearly knows and is obviously comfortable with the offense.  He’s a terrific athlete, too; we could see that easily.  But as we saw last season, he got got stopped at least once on a play where a pitch was clearly available.  Also: it’s hard to evaluate the efficacy of running quarterbacks in a scrimmage where they’re in no-contact red jerseys.  All of the QBs were down on first contact, though there were several times when I thought this aided the defense in unreasonably helpful ways.
Speaking personally, I thought Bradshaw looked a little tentative.  But Nick’s dad disagreed, saying that he thought Bradshaw looked good.  I think I trust Mr. Miller’s judgement a little more than my own; he clearly knows more about football.  Against that, though, is the reality that the offense struggled to do much under Bradshaw--or any of the quarterbacks.  They didn’t get any push on the inside, and there was rarely much running room elsewhere.  Bradshaw’s best thing is his speed, but I don’t think I saw them run a single stretch option to the outside, which is where you would expect that he would excel.  In a real game, the combination of pounding inside and Bradshaw’s speed outside could easily tell over time, but in the scrimmage, each QB got exactly one series and then came out.  Offenses and defenses rotated so quickly that there wasn’t much time to simply wear away at the other side’s will to win.  That’s going to have to be a significant part of Bradshaw’s game if he does, in fact, become the starting quarterback.
Cow Matthew Kaufman and Plebe Chris Carter also both looked good in the offense, and in fact, if you accept the rebuilding argument we made earlier, then I think Carter is your obvious starter.  He threw the ball well, had good speed and agility, and actually moved the offense.  Of course, Carter is 5’11”, 170 lbs, which is a touch taller than I am but twenty-five pounds lighter (and I am a swimmer), so I don’t know how realistic it is to put the ball in his hands long-term.  Carter threw one block during the scrimmage, and Chris laughed because the poor kid bounced and then almost got smooshed.  The guy just doesn’t have a lot of meat on his frame to run the option in Division I football.  He’s talented, though, and I find myself wondering what he’ll look like a year from now, after he’s had a little more time to mature physically.
While we’re talking about it, Nick Miller proved to be a fantastic run blocker.  I don’t remember who was quarterback when Miller finally went in, but they ran behind him several times, and it was one of the few periods when the offense actually moved with any consistency.  If you’re reading this and looking for an obscure storyline to watch over the course of the season, consider Miller’s.  It was clear to me that he’s got some playing time coming in his immediate future.  He’s a big kid who knows how to get guys out of the way.  Army needs that.
As of this writing, special teams looks like a problem area.  We saw a number of oddly-handled punts, and of the three field goal attempts we watched, none actually scored.  Granted, they were trying field goals from maybe forty-five or fifty yards out, but still…  All the kicks were low, one was blocked, and none actually went through the uprights.  This is not a good sign, especially considering how inconsistent the offense looked.
Against that, though, the defense looked stout.  They held up well in the middle, strung out the option with excellent consistency, and played well in pass coverage.  Of course, these were single-series plays, and we saw Army’s defense play well a lot early in games last season, only to then give up points late, but…  If we’re looking for something good, then the defense looked good.  I hate to hang the season’s success on the defense considering the mauling they took at times last year, but right now, that’s kind of where we are.  For better or worse, the offense is going to need to be able to establish some rhythm if we’re ever actually going to win any games, but it’s clear that the defense can play if they can be kept fresh enough to stay competitive against quality competition.
Finally, Chris and Mr. Miller both noted that Coach Monken is a very disciplined, very animated guy.  We saw an encroachment penalty, and the offending D-Lineman got pulledimmediately.  There were several other examples of this sort of thing.  Honestly, by the end of the scrimmage, I think Chris was enjoying watching the coach as much as he enjoyed watching the actual team.
There were a few things that we didn’t see.  I didn’t notice Xavier Moss’s play at Safety, and although I saw CB Chris Carnegie on the sidelines, I wasn’t paying enough attention to the defense to take much note of his play.  I also managed to miss plebes Kenneth Brinson and Gibby Gibson, though both have been highly touted in the media.  Still, after maybe ninety minutes of watching practice, Chris and I were both ready to head out.  It was 91 degrees by that point, and we’d accomplished what we came to do.
Obligatory selfie #1.
Obligatory selfie #2.
This #goARMY truck is by far & away the coolest thing we saw all day.
It has a football, an Abrams tank, and an Apache helicopter on it.
One of the things about Army football is that the actual football is rarely the best part of the experience, and that was true this time as well.  We mugged for some selfies on our way out of Michie, stopped by the AOG gift shop where I got some stickers for my car, and then went down to the main gift shop at the Visitor’s Center in an ongoing quest to find a hat for Chris’s son Aiden.  The gift shop was both mobbed with plebes and plebe parents and stocked with new Army Swimming t-shirts, so that made me happy.  My last Army Swimming shirt died many, many moons ago.  
Neither of us had ever been to the South Gate Tavern.
As a cadet, you'd have to be mad to risk going there.
The inside was pretty cool.  Irish decor, Italian food.
Typical of upstate New York.  I loved the place.
We stopped at the South Gate Tavern on our way out for a bite and a couple of beers, and then we headed to Stratford, where we sat out on my front porch and shot the breeze.  Then I grilled hamburgers, and I gotta say that those came out pretty well.
The Academy crest on the Association of Graduates building.
My new shirt.  I'm gonna wear it to the pool as soon as I finish writing this.
New sticker on my back windshield.

That’s it.  Army’s first game is in just under three weeks.  The team plays Fordham on Friday, September 4th, at 7pm.  Fordham is a very good FCS school and a long-time regional rival.  It ought to be a pretty good game.

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