Chris Carter's performance against Navy generated considerable optimism in and around West Point. Just as the career of Navy's Keenan Reynolds came to a close, the Black Knights -- not the Midshipmen -- gained a glimpse of a luminous playmaker who, in his first season, already possessed a sixth sense of how to play football's most important position. Carter will be the focal point of Army's 2016 season, and rightly so.
Yet, if you paid attention to Navy during the Reynolds era -- especially last season -- you noticed that Reynolds wasn't always the hero for the Midshipmen.
He needed help... and he got it almost every time.
In the face of Notre Dame's overwhelming physical strength and Houston's dazzling speed, Navy didn't have any answers, but in every other game the Midshipmen played, they won. On several occasions, Reynolds led the charge, but in other instances, the defense deserved the primary game ball, carrying the balance of play and either bailing out the offense (which happened against Army) or keeping the game close in the middle 20 minutes before the offense was able to find itself in the final 20 minutes (as happened against South Florida).
Discussing Navy's success isn't meant to recall unpleasant memories. As we shift back to Army's outlook for 2016, it's important to note that as great as Reynolds was, he needed to be put in position to thrive.
It's not going to be any different for Chris Carter, as skilled as he is.
The defense faces its own share of challenges, but today, we're going to consider one particular stat from the 2015 season and underscore its value to Army in the coming campaign.
It's true that more kickoffs are becoming touchbacks following the move of the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35 a few years ago. In 2011, before the change of kickoff spots, Army returned 55 kickoffs. Last season, it returned only 37. This is an increasingly less common part of the sport. Nevertheless, 37 kickoff returns over three games is an average of just over three returns per game. One can readily point to other components of football in which just three per game matter.
Three turnovers per game.
Three personal foul penalties per game.
Three missed field goals per game.
It can and does matter.
If a team gets its hands on three kickoff returns -- three chances to do something with a return because a kickoff isn't struck all that well -- a good unit will find a way to get at least one 30-yard return. A day with a 30-yard return and two 20-yard returns will create an average kickoff return of just over 23 yards. This is important because of the fact that while the spot of the kickoff has been pushed up five yards (the 30 to the 35), the spot for a post-kickoff touchback has also been moved up five yards, from the 20 to the 25.
It only stands to reason: If the touchback spot on kickoffs is now the 25, teams which can average in the mid-20s on kickoff returns are, at worst, losing nothing in terms of field position. A kickoff is almost always returned by a player standing outside the end zone. Given the 25-yard line touchback location, it's patently foolish for a returner to catch the ball a few yards deep in the end zone and try to run the ball out. The chances of getting to the 25 are remote. Only in desperate situations is it reasonable to take the ball out of the end zone, in the attempt to make a play.
The point is plain: If a return man catches the ball at the 1- or 2-yard line and averages at least 23 yards per kickoff return, a team isn't losing more than one yard (at most) relative to the touchback spot. Navy (yeah, those irritating Mids, I know...) averaged 24.22 kickoff return yards last season, giving Keenan Reynolds a fair amount of assistance.
Army's average kickoff return length: 18.68 yards. That's not going to cut it.
One doesn't need to get into a detailed explanation of the small margins Army faces in many areas. Everyone in and around the program knows this team needs every little edge it can get. No, kickoff returns aren't the cure-all for this team, the hinge point on which the rest of the season depends, but that's part of the point: It isn't about any one thing; it's about Army making strides in various facets of competition, including the hidden-yards battles which pop up all over the field. Army has to be better in several such areas, not just one, for this (and any) season to begin to approach its promise and potential.
Army's return to quality demands many improvements... but let's make sure "returning" is one skill the Black Knights must burnish in 2016.