The most impressive part of Chris Carter's day at Michie Stadium had nothing to do with his statistics or his very competent, better-than-expected performance in his first Army game. No, the most outstanding thing Carter did on Saturday -- forced into the lineup due to injuries to both Ahmad Bradshaw and A.J. Schurr -- was that he set the perfect tone for this program in his postgame remarks.
Carter wasn't flawless -- freshmen making their first college starts hardly ever are -- but he did throw for 140 yards, the most by an Army quarterback in five years. Beyond that, however, Carter took the torch of leadership and set down a standard his temamates can emulate.
When Carter matter-of-factly told reporters, "There was no time to be scared," he uttered a refrain which must characterize the Black Knights going forward. If Jeff Monken is to turn this operation into a winning one, more Chris Carters need to populate the locker room. There is no time or space for anyone to be afraid to fail (including the head coach, as remarked upon in this space a month ago). Sports provide a theater of risk, and football is particularly paramount in demanding complete, full-body investment in every last action and movement. Playing this sport at half-pace doesn't just get you beat; it gets you hurt. Coaches and athletes know that, but there's still a layer of pscyhology at which teams either resist or embrace the challenges victory requires
Army has stood on the wrong (or perhaps more precisely, short) side of that barrier. Carter, though new to being a starting quarterback at the collegiate level, seems to grasp this inexact art more than others. Just a freshman, he points the way to a brighter future if he can evolve as a signal caller over the next three years.
It's true that whole teams need leaders throughout the roster and on both sides of the ball, but college football remains a quarterback's game. Even with a run-first attack such as the triple option, the quarterback is the central hub of the whole system. If he doesn't make the right reads or responses, the rest of the offense won't work.
Carter lent so much to Army's offense on Saturday, but his two mistakes proved crucial in giving a battered Rutgers team (24 listed injuries, with five offensive linemen on the shelf) the leverage it needed to win. If Carter can develop into the player Monken and the staff think he can become, Army will begin to stand on the right side of the many close games it has played in 2015. The Black Knights will gain the benefit of Carter's skills while not suffering the crucial giveaways that have dogged them in the past.
Navy's rise in Annapolis was certainly built on the back of many sources, and of a whole-cloth roster being developed by Paul Johnson, but the Midshipmen have been blessed with quality at the quarterback spot. From Craig Candeto to Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada; from Lamar Owens to Ricky Dobbs to present-day star Keenan Reynolds, Navy has found and cultivated the trigger men who can make the triple-option hum. We can talk scheme to a certain extent and address Monken's in-game decisions at various points along the way (as we have in fact done in prior weeks), but the emergence of an A-grade performer and leader at football's most important position is what Army can use more than just about anything else.
Yes, a floundering program requires improvement in several different areas -- that point goes without saying -- but one of the foremost central catalysts of a meaningful leap forward in college football is the identification of "The Right Man" at quarterback. Carter, in the substance of his play, shows a lot of promise. In the substance of his leadership, Carter offers the indication that he can be the complete player Army needs.
There are no guarantees that this will happen, of course. Do not read this as an "Army has arrived!" proclamation. Do not interpret this as an "Army is set and should no longer worry!" announcement made through a megaphone. Do not view this as an expression of the belief that Carter is a can't-miss prospect who is certain to accomplish what he and Monken want for the program.
What is this column, then? It is merely an attempt to say that Army has some reason for optimism, rooted in the fearlessness with which Carter plays.
That remark about not having time to be scared could strike many observers as athlete-speak boilerplate. Yet, Carter's performance -- mixing moments of bold brilliance with flawed and uneven brushstrokes -- very much conveys the image of unreserved aggression. Carter was willing to make the big mistake in the pursuit of the big play. He can certainly learn to display better ball security in the fullness of time, but the reality that a first-time collegiate starter lent so much to Army's passing game is a striking statement for a freshman to make.
"There was no time to be scared" seems less a stock statement, and more of a delcaration that Carter won't settle for being ordinary. This is the attitude which must filter through a locker room. This is the culture which must begin to permeate the practice field.
Army doesn't have any guarantees of success for 2016 or beyond. The program hasn't earned the right to say it knows its future will be better. Moreover, even if it had good reason to, teams must always re-prove themselves at the beginning of September, even if the previous season was outstanding. Football forces its competitors to start from scratch, because a loss in week one creates a weight of pressure unmatched by the opening-day games of our other major team sports.
Yet, for all the ways in which Army cannot guarantee a better day in 2016, Chris Carter -- with the marks of a leader-in-the-making and the comportment of a player who intuitively knows how to guide his teammates -- represents this program's glittering glimpse into the years ahead.
If Jeff Monken can polish this diamond in 2016 and beyond, Army might have found the remedy to its ills. So many of the discussions which have circled around this fan base for the past five years will recede, and maybe even vanish for some time.
That's an exciting possibility to contemplate after 11 games. It's something to be thankful for when you tuck into that turkey and stuffing on Thursday afternoon.