By Nicole Auerbach2h ago
Each spring, Jeff Monken feels the same. He’s anxious. He’s uncertain. He’s fearful, even.
“I always feel like we’re hanging on by the seat of our pants,” he said, chuckling. “Really. I feel the same way every year. I feel this sense of urgency to get our team prepared to build leadership from within the ranks. … I never feel like we’re talented enough, that we got all these good players coming back and we’re going to be OK. I just always feel like we’re in this mode of trying to develop players and get the most out of them, and we’re hoping that guys are continuing to improve so that they can play their very best football as seniors. That’s where I am again.
“I’m always a nervous wreck. We can win a bunch of games, or we could just flat-out stink. It’s that sense of urgency to try to push our team and get us to a place where I think we can be competitive.”
This is the head coach of an Army team that went 9-4 last season, capped off by a dramatic last-second win over an SEC opponent in the Armed Forces Bowl. By all accounts, it was yet another wildly successful season, something fans of the Black Knights have become accustomed to during the Monken era. It was the fourth time in five years that Army finished with nine or more wins. The 24-22 win against Missouri was also the fourth bowl game victory under Monken.
But Army did not beat Navy.
And when Army is evaluating whether it had a successful season, it matters if the Black Knights beat the Midshipmen.
“It is agonizing to lose to Navy,” Monken said. “I mean, we don’t ever want to lose to them, and we had had such success over the last five years — we’d beaten them four of the last five years, and that was a source of pride for us. I was sorely disappointed when we lost to them this year.
“I was really happy for our team that we were able to finish the season with a win in the bowl game and win over a Power 5 team in the SEC. That’s a big win for our program. It doesn’t fill the hole that we feel in the loss to Navy, and nothing will fill that that void. The elation of celebrating on that field after you beat your biggest rival — there’s nothing like it. So, it was a good year. It wasn’t a great year. A great year is a year we beat Navy and win the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy.”
So Army turns the page to a 2022 season in which those goals remain at the forefront. Monken says he’s excited to see this particular team reveal itself once fall camp gets underway. It’s a roster filled with experienced and versatile playmakers but also one that needs new faces to step into key roles.
Christian Anderson has graduated, but coaches are excited about the three players they have competing for the starting quarterback position: seniors Tyhier Tyler, Cade Ballard and Jemel Jones. (Another senior, Maurice Bellan, has moved from quarterback to slotback.) Tyler, who attempted just seven passes last season, has shown improvement this offseason as a passer — Monken says he’s throwing the ball as well as he ever has — and in his decision-making. Ballard is coming off a strong spring, finally healthy and looking like the runner coaches saw when he was in high school. He underwent back surgery during his plebe year and, after sparking some midseason heroics in 2020, hasn’t run the ball the way he used to until recently. Jones also has game experience and is working to improve his consistency.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve played multiple quarterbacks in the same game,” Monken said. “That’s a formula that works for us. So, I think one of those guys will be the guy and emerge as a starter, but I think we’ll play the other guys as well. They’re all a little bit different.”
Juniors Jakobi Buchanan and Tyson Riley lead the fullback group. Riley is a factor along the perimeter as well as inside — he averaged 4.5 yards per carry in 2021 — and Buchanan is a short-yardage specialist, scoring 12 touchdowns last year. Expect Riley to receive the bulk of the carries due to his explosiveness, but coaches love this 1-2 punch. The staff moved sophomore slotback Markel Johnson over to fullback to provide some depth there because he has a good burst, too. Junior slotback Tyrell Robinson, the team’s leading returning rusher, is back after a brief foray into the transfer portal. Robinson tallied 609 rushing yards on just 72 carries last season with three rushing touchdowns; he’s a playmaker who needs to get the ball this fall. Junior Ay’Jaun Marshall, senior receiver/slotback Cole Caterbone and converted quarterback Maurice Bellan round out the slotbacks.Robinson is the Black Knights’ leading returning rusher. (Danny Wild / USA Today)
Army doesn’t have the sport’s most prolific passing game, but it has playmakers with good hands who can make game-changing plays. Sophomore Isaiah Alstin, who led the team with 449 receiving yards on 22 receptions, briefly considered transferring but opted to stay — a huge boost for the unit. Alstin hauled in a 48-yard catch against Air Force and had three catches in the bowl game against Missouri, adding a weapon on 50-50 balls to a typically rush-heavy attack. Senior Ryan Jackovic has been an effective blocker on the edge and can be utilized in the passing game as well. Junior Veshe Daniyan has battled injuries, but he’s probably the fastest receiver in the group and could develop into a deep threat. Junior tight end Joshua Lingenfelter will be a factor if he can stay healthy, but there are concerns about the depth behind him at that position.
Veteran center Connor Bishop anchors the offensive line and remains one of the most important leaders on his side of the ball. He’s backed up by junior Jackson Filipowitz, who might be the most improved lineman of the group since spring began — he’ll see game time spelling Bishop and perhaps at a left guard spot that is otherwise up for grabs in an ongoing competition between junior Aidan Gaines and junior Sam Barczak. Right guard is more solidified, with junior Connor Finucane back after a season that saw him starting games at both tackle and guard. Jordyn “Boobie” Law missed spring ball with an injury but is expected to start at left tackle. The right tackle spot will be decided in fall camp, with two converted tight ends in juniors Shayne Buckingham and Simon Dellinger competing alongside junior David Hayward. The returning game experience along the line should be an asset as Army breaks in a new starting quarterback.
Key stat to know: The Black Knights shorten the game and limit possessions; this is no secret, but boy is it effective. Army averaged 10.3 drives per game last season, second fewest in the FBS, per Pro Football Focus. Only Kansas State (10.2) averaged fewer. (The national average is 12.2 drives per game.) The Black Knights’ 3.2 points per drive ranked fifth in the FBS, and they scored touchdowns on 42.5 percent of their drives, third-best in the FBS.Black Knights returning production
|CATEGORY||PERCENT RETURNING||TOP RETURNER|
|Passing yards||17||Jones, 135|
|Rushing yards||67||Robinson, 609|
|Receiving yards||86||Alston, 449|
|OL starts||52||Finucane, 13|
|Tackles for loss||53||Carter, 18.5|
|Interceptions||80||Three with 2|
There’s a hole in Army’s defense, and it’s right up the middle: Do-everything nose tackle and team captain Noah Cockrill has graduated, as have middle linebacker Arik Smith and free safety Cedric Cunningham. That trio anchored this defense a season ago, and every single of the unit takes a hit with their departure. “Those are three good players who made a lot of plays for us,” Monken said.
But one of the nation’s best edge rushers is back in the form of junior dog ‘backer (an outside linebacker position that serves predominantly as a pass rusher) Andre Carter II. Carter led the nation in sacks per game with 1.19, ahead of Alabama’s Will Anderson and Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson. He tallied 15.5 sacks, plus four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, an interception, five quarterback hurries and two pass breakups. There were 14 FBS players with at least 50 QB pressures in 2021. None of them had fewer pass rush snaps than Carter (285). Purdue’s George Karlaftis (314) had the second fewest. Expect senior Fabrice Voyne to back Carter up.
The other outside linebacker spot, which the team calls Apache, is the position the Black Knights use to cover the slot but also to blitz off the edge, and that’s where you can expect to see junior Jimmy Ciarlo, who hasn’t yet started a game for Army but could be a breakout player. Coaches believe he has the perfect blend of speed, power and athleticism, and he’ll need all three as he steps in to replace two-year starter Malkelm Morrison. Sophomore Josiah Banks will enter fall camp as Ciarlo’s backup. Junior Nate Smith has separated himself at defensive end on the field side and is projected to start. At defensive end to the boundary, it’ll likely be senior Kwabensa Bonsu, even though he missed spring ball due to an injury. Look for significant playing time also for Chris Frey, who has played quite a bit mostly as a reserve.Marquel Broughton leads a defense whose ability to reload will be tested. (Danny Wild / USA Today)
Either senior Darius Richardson or senior Tyler Komorowski will replace Cockrill in the middle. Both stand out from their peers, and it’s possible they could share duties at nose tackle. The inside will linebacker position is probably junior Leo Lowin’s to lose, though he’s being pushed by sophomore Brian Burton and junior Hamilton Baker. Junior Spencer Jones, a part-time starter last year, is the likely starter at mike linebacker; sophomore Kalvyn Crummie and senior Peyton Hampton have come on strong and could give Jones a run for his money.
Senior strong safety Marquel Broughton is the unquestioned leader of the defense and will be an integral part of a secondary that is turning over quite a bit. Broughton, who led Army in tackles last season, is expected to start alongside sophomore free safety Max DiDomenico, who mostly played on special teams last season and now will replace Cedric Cunningham. Junior cornerback Jabari Moore, who has five interceptions in the last two seasons and a knack for timely pass breakups, should be the top corner heading into fall camp. The corner spot opposite Moore is more uncertain, with senior Isaiah Morris as a penciled-in starter while the coaches wait to see who else will step up.
Key stat to know: Army’s Andre Carter II pressured opposing quarterbacks (sack, hit or hurry) on 17.5 percent of his pass rush snaps last season, which PFF ranks fourth-highest among the 441 FBS players with at least 200 pass rush snaps in 2021. The FBS average is about eight percent. Only App State’s Nick Hampton (18.1 percent) had a higher pressure rate among returning FBS defenders.
Junior kicker Cole Talley, who drilled the 41-yard field goal as time expired to beat Missouri, returns and alongside veteran long snapper Ryan Aguilar. Last season, Talley was 8 of 11 on field goals and 44 of 46 on PATs while averaging 59 yards per kickoff. Twenty-one of his 64 kickoffs went for touchbacks.
Opposing scouting report
No opposing coach enjoys playing the service academies and their particular breed of triple-option football, and that’s especially true of teams that have played Army since its rise under Monken.
“Their offense consumes so much of your thought process,” said a coach who faced Army last season. “Even as an offensive coach going against their defense, you’re still thinking about their offense, because you understand it, like, ‘Oh man, we’re not going to get many possessions. We’re not going to get many opportunities.’ It starts to crowd your mind and your thought process. We’ve got to maximize opportunities.
“Then you press a little bit more to make sure your plays work. You can’t have any wasted plays. It’s a little bit more stressful when you are preparing for those types of opponents.”
This particular coach realized as the game went on that Army’s defense took advantage of its ability to psych the other team out. Because the Black Knights knew opponents were pressing, they could simplify things defensively early in the game. What worked for this particular coach was huddling and waiting until there were about 10 seconds on the game clock to get into formation. That forced Army’s defense to scramble and respond to what they were showing. It rattled them a little bit, which helped the opposing team get into the game.
The coach pointed out that some of the traits that make these Army athletes great members of the military show up in games: They play hard; they play fearlessly, and they’re always where they’re supposed to be on the field.
“They’ll put their bodies on the line,” the coach said. “You have to make sure you prepare your guys for that piece of it, the physicality piece, knowing it’s going to be different than what you’ve been going up against.”
How the Black Knights recruited from 2019 to 2022
Over the past four years, Army ranks 115th nationally in average recruiting ranking, but rankings never tell the full story at the service academies. Ultimately, they’re competing with each other to find under-recruited players who also have strong academic backgrounds and a willingness to serve. Some have family members who have served in the military, but most of the time it’s on the Army staff to educate potential prospects about all that playing there would entail.
Monken said he’s changed his recruiting approach over the past decade he’s spent at Army, and he’s also had turnover with his recruiting staff. “The longer you’ve been at a place, the more you learn that place and how to attract the right people, how to secure commitments from the right kind of guys,” Monken said.
His staff has adjusted the specific areas of the country that they emphasize in recruiting. Army, like Navy and Air Force, must recruit nationally as well as from the military prep schools; the 2022 class includes a large chunk of players from Texas, a three-star defensive lineman from Tennessee, plus players from the prep schools ranging from Connecticut to Florida and California. Monken and his staff like to recruit players they feel can play multiple positions; it’s not uncommon for an offensive skill position player or any defender to line up at multiple spots.
In the transfer portal
The tricky thing is this: Army can lose players to the portal, but it is incredibly difficult for it to add transfers. Essentially, anyone who transfers in would then have to start over as a freshman, credits-wise. (Members of the military are also not allowed to make money off of NIL, so the two major developments in college sports roster management right now don’t affect service academies in the same way.)
Two of the Black Knights’ top offensive returners (Alston and Robinson) dipped their toes into the portal before deciding to return to West Point. Their decision not to transfer was the program’s most significant news out of the portal this offseason.Monken is 58-43 since taking over at West Point in 2014. (Danny Wild / USA Today)
Impact of coaching changes
Co-defensive coordinator Shiel Wood left to become Troy’s defensive coordinator this offseason and was replaced by Scot Sloan, who came from Georgia Southern, but nothing will change in terms of scheme or approach. Army defensive coordinator Nate Woody worked with Sloan at Appalachian State. The Black Knights also tabbed former Colorado State defensive line coach Sean Cronin to coach the same position. Monken moved around a couple of offensive coaches under longtime coordinator Brent Davis and hired a few new ones, including new receivers coach Aaron Smith, who came over from UConn. Longtime assistant Tucker Waugh has transitioned to a new off-field role as the executive director for player personnel and recruiting.
Monken points to the fact that he has rehired coaches over the course of his tenure and backfilled a couple of positions with existing staffers this winter as an example of his program operating as intended. “When it’s working, you find someone with a similar personality and temperament — I think that’s easier on the players,” Monken said. “When you win and you have success, this happens. People come and hire your people. That’s just the way it goes. I brace for it and prepare for it every year.”
|Sept. 3||Coastal Carolina||Away|
|Oct. 1||Georgia State||Home|
|Oct. 8||Wake Forest||Away|
|Nov. 5||Air Force||Arlington, Texas|
|Dec. 10||Navy||Philadelphia, Pa.|
Army needs new players to step up in key roles, but it’s still Army. This team will be tough and disciplined, and it will be expected to win at least 8-9 games — even with tough tests against Wake Forest, Coastal Carolina and UTSA on the docket. If the Black Knights remain as consistent amid roster turnover as their recent history indicates they should be, they will likely be favored once again to win the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy. And Andre Carter II may become a household name along the way.