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Army is good again! But to keep rolling, Jeff Monken will need a new QB

The Black Knights haven’t had three good years in a row since the 1950s, but it feels pretty realistic this time around.

NCAA Football: Army at Navy
Jeff Monken
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

If NMSU’s bowl win over Utah State provided the most purely joyful moment of the 2017 season, you could say Army’s bowl win was the most purely satisfying.

After nearly 60 minutes of Army grinding out touchdowns at the end of eight-, 10-, 12-, and 13-play drives and San Diego State responding with explosions — touchdown runs of 32, 49, and 81 yards, plus a 78-yard kick return score — Army found itself with the ball, down seven, with 5:47 remaining.

  • Fullback Darnell Woolfolk rushed for eight yards on second-and-7 to the Army 39.
  • Fullback Andy Davidson rushed for 10 yards on second-and-10.
  • Slot back (and possible 2018 starting quarterback) Kell Walker rushed for 14 yards on third-and-4 to the SDSU 31. The clock ticked under three minutes.
  • After a penalty, quarterback/magician Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for nine yards on second-and-17, then for 14 on third-and-8, to the SDSU 15. A minute remained.
  • Walker rushed for 12 to the 3. Bradshaw rushed for two, and after a timeout, Woolfolk plunged in up the middle for the touchdown to tie the—
  • Oh hell no, Army wasn’t going to kick the PAT, send the game into OT, and let SDSU’s offense back on the field. Monken was going to try to win against a SDSU defense that had been on the field for 91 snaps and 46 minutes. Bradshaw pitched to Walker, who had gone in motion to the right. 36-35 Army.
  • Cornerback Elijah Riley, who had missed about two-thirds of the season battling academic issues, snared a desperation lateral, creating the most unnatural seven-point win you’ll ever see.

This was just the Black Knights’ second 10-win season of all-time; granted, Army has had some of the sport’s best teams ever, but the program fell into a pall around the time teams began scheduling double-digit games.

Air Force had Ken Hatfield, who dragged the program out of a malaise in the 1980s, then handed the reins to Fisher DeBerry for a long run.

Navy had Paul Johnson, who did the same in Annapolis before passing the baton to Ken Niumatalolo, who has bowled nine times in 10 years.

Now Army has Monken. He has only had two good years so far (plus, Army responded to its last 10-win season, in 1996, by winning 2.5 games per year for the 12 seasons), but after losing 18 games in his first two seasons, he’s won 18 in the last two.

After bowling twice in 27 years, the cadets have done so twice in a row. They just won their first Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in 21 years. Recruiting has improved, investment in the program has risen, and the program looks the part.

Now comes maybe the ultimate test for a rising service academy: replacing a star quarterback. Bradshaw was transcendent in 2017, rushing for 1,746 yards and guiding a devastating attack. His departure means it’s all hands on deck (well, I guess that’s more of a Navy saying) at QB: if either Walker, junior Kelvin Hopkins Jr. (last year’s backup), senior Luke Langdon, or one of two sophomores (three-star Christian Anderson or Cam Thomas) is able to guide the offense, Army will have the pieces. Woolfolk and Davidson are back, and if Walker isn’t the quarterback, he can resume his role of slotback extraordinaire.

The defense has been working younger players into the rotation and has avoided the “two returning starters” curse that we sometimes see at service academies. It returns a top-40 level of production and brings back genuine playmakers at linebacker and in the secondary.

The table is set ... as long as there’s a QB.

Offense

This is a damn work of art:

2017 Army offensive radar

That is almost a caricature of everything we want from an option offense.

Bradshaw was never much of a passer. He was 14-for-43 for 285 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions in 2017, and Hopkins was sometimes brought in for two-minute offense. (Hopkins was merely 6-for-18 himself, but he did complete five of 12 passes against Temple, throwing a touchdown pass with one second remaining to force overtime in an eventual win.) But the dude could run.

Army was skilled enough at the first two steps of the option — fullbacks Woolfolk, Davidson, Connor Slomka, and Calen Holt combined for a 52 percent success rate over 28 carries per game, while Bradshaw’s rushing success rate was 57 percent — that the Black Knights didn’t even need much out of their slot backs. Walker led with 629 yards at 7.3 yards per carry, but no other slot carried more than 18 times.

NCAA Football: Armed Forces Bowl-San Diego State vs Army
Kell Walker
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

If Walker ends up as the starting QB, that means the most experienced returning slot man is Jordan Asberry, who rushed just 18 times and caught three passes. But if Hopkins or someone else seizes control, he’ll have a full arsenal (military term!).

Coordinator Brent Davis does have to replace both starting wideouts (Jermaine Adams and Jeff Ejekam), but they combined for all of five receptions last year, and considering how little Army was actually running to the outside, you can’t even say their blocking will be missed all that much.

The big losses, though, are up front. I tend to downplay turnover when talking about service academies, simply because — with the “no redshirts” rule and a proclivity for playing upperclassmen — they’re always replacing quite a few starters. Army avoids that for the most part this year, but the line still took a hit.

Only center Bryce Holland returns from last year’s starting lineup, and that could be tough, considering just how effective Army’s line was. The Black Knights were first in FBS in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), power success rate, and, for good measure, Adj. Sack Rate. Sure, the system plays a role, but these were elite numbers even for an option offense.

Three other linemen — guard Jaxson Deaton and tackles Mike Johnson and Austin Schuffert — do boast spot-starting experience, and likely starting guard Peyton Reeder (a 6’6, 290-pound sophomore) looks the part. But despite all the skill guys returning, losing Bradshaw and four starting linemen means potential volatility,

This corps of fullbacks, though, will help keep things relatively stable. Woolfolk and Davidson have combined for exactly 3,000 rushing yards over the last two seasons, and Slomka, a 240-pound junior with a 63 percent success rate, was more efficient than either one of them. Sending a 235-pounder up the gut should not work as well as it worked for Army, and odds are it will continue to work pretty well.

NCAA Football: Army at Navy
Darnell Woolfolk
James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Army defensive radar

When you don’t let the other team have the ball, you don’t necessarily need an elite defense. But it isn’t a coincidence that Army began making bowls when its defense improved. In 2016, the Black Knights actually ranked better in Def. S&P+ (66th) than Off. S&P+ (109th), and as the offense finally found its rhythm last season (31st), the defense held steady at 80th.

That’s particularly impressive considering the instability at the back. Safety Rhyan England missed five games, Jaylon McClinton missed three, and coordinator Jay Bateman had to deal with a couple of major issues at cornerback: Riley missed five games, fellow starter Jalen Sharp made it just two games before suffering a season-ending knee injury, and potential contributor Marcus Hyatt missed all season trying to figure out a neurological disorder. (I haven’t found any specific information on his progress, but assume Hyatt’s still out.)

The depth chart was in permanent flux, but safety James Gibson was a rock, and Army still pulled off a brilliant bend-don’t-break routine. The Black Knights ranked just 117th in success rate but 79th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of an offense’s successful plays) and 65th in points allowed per scoring opportunity. Army’s offense ranked ninth in the same category, so opponents basically had to create five scoring chances to generate the points Army scored in four.

NCAA Football: Army at Ohio State
James Nachtigal (19) and Cole Christiansen (54)
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

A full season of Riley and Sharp should enhance Army’s play-making, but the key will probably remain the linebackers. Army ranked just 108th in havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays), but the per-unit distribution was pretty unique:

  • DL havoc rate: 1.9 percent (123rd)
  • LB havoc rate: 6.6 percent (12th)
  • DB havoc rate: 4.7 percent (120th)

The foursome of ILBs James Nachtigal and Cole Christiansen and OLBs Alex Aukerman and Kenneth Brinson made 48 percent of Army’s havoc plays; Aukerman, the best pass rusher of the bunch, is gone, but the other three return. There is no obvious play-making replacement for Aukerman — presumptive starter Chandler Ramirez made just nine tackles and no havoc plays last year — but Brinson, a former mid-three-star recruit, is a good starting point on the edge.

Army also has to replace its only known play-maker up front, too. End John Voit had 5.5 sacks and a pair of breakups. Every other 2017 lineman combined: 4.5 TFLs. Senior Wunmi Oyetuga had his moments, but losing both Aukerman and Voit will put a lot of pressure on a defense that relied on its pass rush (11th in passing downs sack rate) to stop drives short of the end zone.

NCAA Football: Army at Navy
Elijah Riley
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Losing key play-makers on defense could also put more pressure on Army’s special teams unit to ... do something good. The Black Knights ranked 127th in Special Teams S&P+, due primarily to the legs. Place-kicker Blake Wilson was just 3-for-8 on field goals, and while Nick Schrage averaged a decent 42.9 yards per punt, only three of his 25 punts were fair caught, and five were downed inside the 20. The result: a No. 129 ranking in FG value and a No. 127 ranking in punt efficiency.

On the bright side, the return game was pretty good, but the top kick returner was Kell Walker, and it’s doubtful he’ll retain that role if he ends up the starting QB.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Duke 40 -13.5 22%
8-Sep Liberty 115 9.1 70%
15-Sep Hawaii 122 11.5 75%
22-Sep at Oklahoma 9 -27.3 6%
29-Sep at Buffalo 93 -2.4 45%
13-Oct at San Jose State 129 11.3 74%
20-Oct Miami (Ohio) 82 -0.7 48%
27-Oct at Eastern Michigan 96 -1.6 46%
3-Nov Air Force 112 7.4 67%
10-Nov Lafayette NR 36.7 98%
17-Nov Colgate NR 16.8 83%
8-Dec vs. Navy 85 -2.0 45%
Projected S&P+ Rk 92
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 91 / 92
Projected wins 6.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -12.7 (122)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 110 / 116
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 5 / 8.6
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 58% (42%, 74%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.2 (2.8)

It’s not hard to see how this all goes wrong. Turnover on the offensive line means Woolfolk, Davidson, and the fullbacks only average four to five yards per carry instead of five to six. That means a new QB has to throw a bit more or rely on more risky pitches, and an extra possession per game goes wrong. The defense struggles to replace its play-makers and can’t get off the field on passing downs.

With a schedule that features four relative tossups — games against Buffalo, Miami (Ohio), EMU, and Navy are each projected within a three-point margin — the Black Knights start dropping the close games they’ve been winning lately (they’ve won nine of their last 11 one-possession finishes), and even with home games against Liberty, Hawaii, Lafayette, and Colgate, reaching six wins becomes dicey.

That scenario is on the table, and S&P+ does project an average of just 6.8 wins. But service academies tend to overachieve their S&P+ projections and win close games thanks to their brilliantly efficient ball-control offenses. And with a trio of awesome fullbacks and Walker playing whatever role he ends up playing, I’m guessing Army will have the pieces it needs to be as efficient as ever.

Monken has earned the benefit of the doubt at this point. I’ll predict good things for the Black Knights until they give me a reason to think otherwise.

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