Jeff Monken is preparing for the Black Knight’s second spring practice under his command following his initial 4-8 season as head football coach at West Point. Monken had what looked to be a successful first full recruiting season but actually faces more depth chart questions this spring than he did last season with the graduation of so many seniors starters. Armysports.com will discuss some of the challenges Monken and his staff face this spring.
SEARCHING FOR SLOTBACKS
When Jeff Monken was Navy's A-back coach his slotbacks coined the phrase "A's make plays". The slotback, or A-backs, were Navy's big play threats. Monken is looking at his current inexperienced Army slotback roster and is probably wondering heading into spring which A-back can play? Terry Baggett (1,704 career rushing yards), Raymond Maples ( 2,878 career rushing yards), versatile Tony Giovannelli and Trenton Turrentine all are graduating. That leaves junior Joe Walker as the only returning slotback who was in the rotation last year. Walker rebounded from some early season jitters to finish the year rushing 18 times for 75 yards, a 4.2 average and two scores. Joe made five receptions for 96 yards and threw a 4-yard touchdown pass. Walker is a solid runner who offers decent quickness and can catch the ball. The other slotback position and the depth chart at both spots are wide open.
It looks like the Monken staff plans to move John Trainor, who played in six games last year from wide receiver, to slotback. I like the move. Trainor was a playmaker in 2013 at USMAPS at wide receiver and as returner. He offers surprising speed, great hands and was a solid blocker despite his rail thin frame. If he can hold up physically he has the chance to help. Junior Elijah St. Hilarie was a one time three star Scout.com wide receiver who is a good athlete with a very smooth, effortless wide receiver like stride. St. Hilarie is more of a quick runner than a burner. He can catch the ball but his blocking has to improve to play. Egbezien Obiomon was a starting running back in 2013 for the United States Military Academy Prep School. Obiomon is similar to Turrentine in that he's a physical back who runs hard but lacks breakaway speed. It will be interesting to see who else emerges at slotback from the underclassmen. The old Ellerson staff had good success recruiting running backs early in their tenure but the Black Knights suffered a lot of recruiting attrition at running back the last three years which leaves Monken with a short deck. By the time the Black Knights kickoff this fall I expect at least a few of the direct admits and incoming USMAPS players to be on the three deep depth chart.
NO SCHURR THING AT QUARTERBACK
Quarterback A.J. Schurr will miss spring practice due to an injury. The only consistent part of Schurr's game is his inability to remain healthy. Schurr has twice left spring training as starter and lost the job because he entered summer camp with injuries and couldn't compete. AJ has been a huge disappointment. Schurr impressed me at USMAPS and in a few games since with his athleticism. He showed bursts of promise but makes many of the same mistakes he made at the prep school. He is inconsistent, makes poor decisions running the option but the real concern is he's had the durability of a china doll. He was knocked out of three games last year despite his limited playing time. Former quarterback Angel Santiago had a lot of limitations to his game but he was tough as nails. AJ's ball security issues hold him back and he seems to have a lot of trouble handling a slick ball in bad weather. Schurr has ability but, if he is the starter, I don't believe he will hold up this coming season. The issue for the staff is developing someone else who can play quarterback..
Ahmad Bradshaw missed much of his plebe season dealing with some Academy issues. He'll compete this spring and is talented enough to win the job. Bradshaw was the starting quarterback for the United States Military Academy Prep School in 2013 and proved to be a good athlete. He is a physically strong runner with good quickness but lacks blazing speed. At USMAPS he did manage to break free on a few long touchdown runs despite not possessing top end speed. He has some acceleration in the lane and can run through arm tackles. He has good arm strength for an option quarterback but needs to improve his consistency throwing the ball. Bradshaw was very raw as an option quarterback at USMAPS so it will be interesting to see this spring where his game is at this point in his development. The other quarterbacks on the roster lack the ideal speed you want in an option quarterback. Matthew Kaufmann ran the scout team last year and was the star of last season's spring game. Kaufmann proved at USMAPS he can move a team but he isn't very fast and is essentially a slower left hand version of Angel Santiago. Seth Gonzalez was a direct admit who was the starter on the JV team. Gonzalez was a very accurate passer in high school despite lacking a big arm. Seth has quick feet but with 4.8 speed in the forty yard dash he lacks a second gear in the open field.
BUILDING THE DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVEN
Army needs to replace five of the defensive front seven from last year. Considering that the Black Knights defense allowed opponents 5.3 yards a carry last year that might not be a bad thing. Army has used the same linemen essentially since 2012 but saw little improvement in results and overall production from the defensive line. The good news is Army returns the best two player in last year’s front seven in junior inside linebackers Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King. Timpf was named to First Team FBS All-Independent team, First team All-East and Phil Steele All-Independent team first team defense. He deserved all the honors. Timpf led the Black Knights with 117 tackles, 14 1/2 tackles for a loss, a sack, three interceptions, six passes broken up and a forced a fumble and recovered fumble. Fellow inside linebacker Andrew King was in on 63 tackles, has eight tackles for a loss, five sacks and four pass defensed. King isn't as instinctive as Timpf and is at times over aggressive and runs himself into blocks. He needs to be more consistent in maintaining his gap responsibility. He did a nice job blitzing and was Army's best pass rusher as he led the team in sacks last year.
Up front plebe John Voit (13 tackles, 2 1/2 TFL, sack, INT) took some of Joe Drummond's snaps and he played fairly well. Voit was the Defensive MVP at United States Military Academy Prep School in 2013 and should be a player Bateman can rebuild the defensive line around this season. Voit is a good athlete, strong and uses his hands well to shed defenders to make tackles and rush the passer. The play of the backup nose tackle senior Tala “T.J.” Atimalala (5 tackles in 2014) has been huge disappointment. He hasn't improved much since USMAPS and needs to play much better in his final season. Sophomore Andrew McLean was an impact defensive tackle at United States Military Academy Prep School in 2013 and should be in the mix at tackle or nose guard. McLean is very strong, plays with leverage strength and has a nice first step off the ball. Jordan Smith (6-3", 254) has added twenty pounds since USMAPS and backed up Mike Ugenyi at defensive tackle last year. Smith, entering his junior year, is a very intense player who goes all out every play. He is the ultimate competitor who will battle every down. However, he's not a great natural athlete and can be overpowered if he fails to slip a block.
At Rush and Sam linebacker Army returns only third string direct admit plebe Alex Aukerman and junior Seth Combs. Aukerman is a fundamentally sound and a sure tackler. Alex has excellent anticipation and runs well to the ball. Combs followed his older brother and Army football captain Nate Combs when he joined the Long Gray line. Sophomore Scott Washle (18 tackles) played in six games as a plebe and started against UCONN at inside linebacker. Washle made six tackles and showed good speed at inside linebacker in defending drag routes in front of him against UCONN. It will be interesting to see if the staff moves him outside Scott is athletic, can run and drop into space. The focus will be on who steps up among the underclassmen.
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS AT SAFETY
Last season the play of the safeties was subpar and the two best players Geoffrey Bacon and Hayden Pierce are graduating. Junior Xavier Moss is moving from wide receiver to safety to bring some athleticism to the position. After leading the team in receptions as a plebe he failed to make a catch the last five games of the 2014 season. Moss made six receptions for 52 receiving yards and an 8.7 average on the year and led the team with two touchdown receptions. Moss is tall, athletic with good speed. Moss was one of the top 400 meter runners in Texas as a high school senior and was a member of the USMAPS track relay team that broke a 74-year old 4 x 400 meter record at the Penn Relays in 2013. Senior Luke Prouix (28 tackles) played in eight games and started two at safety last fall but will miss spring practice with an injury. Prouix is willing to hit and can tackle but lacks coverage skills and speed.
Rhyan England (29 tackles, PD) was thrown in the deep end of the pool as a plebe and not surprisingly he struggled. He was a direct admit and spent all summer and the early part of the season at slotback. Rhyan was named first team All-State defensive back in Georgia so the staff moved him to defense. He started five games but allowed a number of big plays. England hopefully will benefit from the growing pains and improve as a sophomore. Except for possibly sophomore Blake Goddard, who is a good athlete and a workout warrior, the rest of the safety candidates lack either size, speed or both. Goddard has some promise but he is learning a new position. I wouldn't be surprised if some direct plebes and prep recruits impact the safety depth chart this fall. This is a weak position on the team.
FINDING A PRODUCTIVE FULLBACK
Senior "B" back captain Larry Dixon was the best offensive player recruited by the previous staff and will be hard to replace. Dixon ended his career in fourth place on the Army all-time list with 3,188 career yards and received First team All FBS Independent honors last season. Senior Matt Giachinta was Dixon's backup last year but he lacks the run skills of recent fullbacks like Dixon, Hassin and Tippett. Giachinta ran 46 times for 152 yards, a paltry 3.3 average with a touchdown. Giachinta is a strong player but doesn't break many tackles. His longest run last year was only 15 yards. He was used mostly as a short yardage back. The Back Knights will need him to do more this fall. Aaron Kemper is a very short bowling bowl sized fullback who appeared in 10 games (158 yards, 6.3 avg., TD) in 2014. Kemper has quick feet and due to his lack of height, being just 5-6", he can often get lost behind Army's offensive line making it hard for opposing defenses to see him at times. Kemper lacks breakaway speed which was seen against Yale when he was run down from behind on his season long 74-yard scamper. Junior Chasen Brown was moved over from defense. He's a good athlete who ran the 100 meters in a personal best 10.9 seconds in high school. It will be interesting to see who emerges among the underclassmen.
Five questions for Army football this spring
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