Monday, August 1, 2016

Army Football Camp Opens: What to Watch

Army opens its preseason football camp today.  I can’t make it to the summer scrimmage this year, unfortunately, and that leaves me with little choice but to follow the team through press coverage as best I can.  Good thing, then, that Army beat writer Sal Interdonato published a pair of articles this past weekend covering the current happenings of the team.

In which Interdonato gives us five things he’s watching in the preseason.
1. The quarterback battle.  If you’re reading this, you already know that Army has two “starting” quarterbacks, Ahmad Bradshaw and Chris Carter.  Bradshaw is the better runner, especially inside, while Carter looks better with the ball in his hand.
I agree with Coach Jeff Monken that if Bradshaw can develop his ball-handling, he’ll be a better option overall.  However, he got dinged last year pretty early, and his game suffered dramatically.  I also think that Army is likely to again need at least two quarterbacks this season because of the sheer straightforward brutality of its offence.
Prediction: Bradshaw gets the start against Temple but gives way to Carter at some point in the first four weeks.  Assuming both guys are healthy, we see a two-QB system with Carter running the offense and Bradshaw managing goal line and short yardage situations.

2. Nose tackle Andrew McLean. D-Line is rarely a strength for the Black Knights, and last year’s starter, T.J. Atimalala graduated.  McLean therefore needs to come back from injury and secure the position.  At ~290 lbs., he’d have excellent size for an Army NT.  Yearlings Cordarrell Davis and Raymond Wright are behind McLean.  I can’t remember seeing either guy play, but I want to say that both saw time last season.  There’s no doubting that the class of 2019 is the bulk of this Army team, so I personally wouldn’t be surprised to see Davis or Wright get considerable playing time.

3.  The secondary.  I talked about this on Twitter the other day.  Yearling Brandon Jackson emerged as last year’s best cornerback.  Safety/converted wide-receiver Xavier Moss started out rough but gradually learned his position.  I don’t want to knock the guy because I know what it’s like to compete for Army and come up short.  I’ve done that myself a couple of times at least.  Still, Moss was a liability against Fordham and UConn both in 2015.  In fact, the whole secondary looked like absolute shit until about midway through the Wake Forest game.  That was about when we saw Jackson emerge, and it also looked like Moss started coming into his own at the same time.  Somewhere in there, Rhyan England started looking like a legitimate D-1 safety as well.  He was maybe the most improved guy on the entire team last year.  Regardless, the entire defensive backfield played much, much better over the second half of the season.
CB Chris Carnegie graduated, and Josh Jenkins left the Academy.  Who will now emerge opposite Jackson, and—equally important—who’s going to come in as the nickel CB/3rd safety?  I would’ve bet on Gibby Gibson as the Big Nickel, but he’s currently listed at outside linebacker.  That’s surprising, but they may be looking for speed out of their edge rushers.  Meanwhile, I’d personally bet on seeing plebes Kjetil Cline and/or Elijah Riley in the backfield sooner rather than later.
It’s like this: Army has terrific linebackers who we know can stuff the run.  Meanwhile, everybody and their brother has thrown on the Black Knights, especially over the middle.  Assuming that this team’s offense can get its shit together, the season will turn on the play of its secondary.  They struggle to get a power pass rush, but they can usually get speed, so you’d like to be able to match up on the outside, force the ball into the middle, and play hard-hitting defense with good safety play.  Cline in particular looks like 2020’s best athlete, and secondary is the area that will determine the team’s success or failure.  So I think we see Cline in the defensive backfield, knocking the snot out of people, rather than in the offensive backfield competing for time at tailback.

4.  Offensive line.  We have a new center in Josh Boylan.  That stinks because it means that we’ve lost the ultra-durable Matt Hugenberg to graduation, but it is also maybe an opportunity to improve our center-quarterback exchange.  Also: yearling tackle Rick Kurz looks to be starting.  That’s awesome.  He looked great last year in the summer scrimmage, and my buddy Chris and I got a chance to meet his parents.  I’ll be rooting for him.

5.  Kicking.  We have new kickers.  That should scare you.  It certainly scares me.  It’s been a good, long time since I thought kicking was one of Army’s strengths.

Not mentioned by Interdonato:
6. Outside linebacker.  Last year’s top recruit was OLB Kenneth Brinson.  He played a lot but didn’t generate a ton of sacks or tackles for loss.  I expect he’ll play better in his yearling season.  Gibby Gibson was also a top recruit, but we didn’t see him much on the field, and now he’s listed at OLB.  At this point, it looks like the OLB rotation will be four deep: cow Alex Aukerman, Brinson, yearling Bayle Wolf, and Gibson.  My read on this is as enhanced commitment to rushing the passer, especially with speed.  Ought to be interesting to see how that plays out.

7.  Wide receiver and tight end.  Oddly, the Black Knights’ best player might just be a wide receiver, firstie Edgar Poe.  His brother Christian Poe is listed fourth on the depth chart and seems likely to see some time as well.  Army also has five tight ends listed, mostly yearlings.  How much are all of these guys going to contribute?
In my day, we used to joke that wide receivers were really “wide blockers”.  That part of their game is still undeniably important.  But with a legitimate number one wide receiver on your roster, you really MUST get him the ball.
With a true deep threat in the triple option, you can potentially stretch a defense badly.  Add in a working short/outside passing game—my longtime dream, I admit it—and this offense could become legitimately dynamic.  But it all starts with movement, Army QBs must be able to throw on the run.  In turn, this means we can’t put the ball on the ground.
All of this is worth watching in the coming weeks.  How has Army’s playbook opened up, and how effectively are they running it.  These will be the critical questions, especially as we start to wonder how much room the fullback dive will find in the middle of the field.

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