Army coach Jeff Monken is stoked for the football season, no matter what the schedule looks like.
“If I was any better I’d have a twin,” Monken joked. “I’m excited to be out here with my team. Our players are excited. They’re looking forward to the football season.”
The glee is understandable for the seventh-year coach. Football is a big deal at the academy, and almost all of Army’s original schedule was wiped out by the pandemic. Dogged work by senior associate athletic director Bob Beretta lined up new opponents to save the season.
“We were prepared for the challenges that arose, remained in front of the events as they unfolded and were relentless in accomplishing the mission of delivering a full 12-game schedule,” Beretta said. “We were forced to rebuild the schedule several times but are extremely pleased with the end product.”
Army finished 5-8 last season after winning a school-record 11 games — and the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy as top dog among the three service academies — the previous year. Injuries at quarterback quickly put a damper on the season when s tandout senior Kelvin Hopkins Jr. and backup Jabari Laws were hurt early.
Hopkins never regained the form he displayed in 2018 in becoming the first player in West Point history to eclipse 1,000 yards both rushing and passing in a season.
Junior QB Christian Anderson, who made his first career start last December in a season-ending loss to Navy, has been tabbed as the starter this season with Laws, also a junior, as the backup, and Monken said a quarterback-by-committee effort is likely. Anderson rushed for 429 yards and four TDs and threw for 135 yards and another score in six games, while Laws rushed for 484 yards and passed for 311 and one TD in nine games. Both averaged 6.4 yards per carry, a good omen. Wide Receiver Isaiah Alston is the lone freshman starter on offense.
Army’s option attack averaged 37 points and 297.2 rushing yards per game last season behind workhorse fullbacks Sandon McCoy and Connor Slomka, but efforts on third and fourth down did not meet expectations. The Black Knights converted 45% of their third-down chances (76 of 158), the same mark as their opponents, and 67% (26 of 39) of their fourth-down tries. Time of possession, a key to the team’s success, was 32:56.
McCoy, who averaged 4.3 yards per carry in rushing for 576 yards and 10 TDs, and junior Cade Barnard are expected to carry the backfield load this season.
Army opens the season at home on Saturday against Middle Tennessee State.
NEW TRIO OF CAPTAINS
The Black Knights have three new captains, all seniors, to assume the task of leading the team: McCoy, linebacker Amadeo West, and offensive lineman Mike Johnson.
“Those three have emerged as leaders starting since last January,” Monken said. “The expectations that we have for this program and the standards that they’ve held their team to be at has been just exactly what we needed it to be.”
BYE BYE SOONERS
Gone from that original schedule is a home game against Oklahoma, which would have been the biggest in recent Michie Stadium history even without fans. Army took Oklahoma to overtime two years ago on the road before losing. The Sooners, ranked No. 5 in the Top 25 preseason poll, were scheduled to visit in late September before the coronavirus struck.
“That would have been an opportunity for us to play a really, really, really great program, but that’s not going to alter our team in any way,” McCoy said. “We’re still going to prepare as if we’re playing Oklahoma every weekend.”
Army has a new defensive coordinator in Nate Woody, who brings a 3-4 scheme to the academy. Big holes to fill include those left by LB Cole Christiansen and DB Elijah Riley, who both signed as free agents with NFL teams.
“New defensive coordinator, new defense staff. That’s a challenge for our guys on that side of the ball to learn the system, the terminology, assignments,” Monken said. “We’re working through it, but there’s growing pains.”
The players returned to campus in June and West Point’s approach to the novel coronavirus has been stellar. Monken said no football athletes have tested positive since returning.
“We’ve at least proven that you can do that for weeks on end, do it the right way, and stay healthy,” Monken said.
Army normally likes to schedule two games against Championship Subdivision teams, but the scramble to fill the schedule boosted that total to four. Late additions to the slate were BYU at home and No. 20 Cincinnati on the road.
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