After a long, cold pandemic winter, the seasons have finally started changing. Spring football is upon us, the lockouts are slowly but surely coming to a close, and everywhere it seems as if life is heading back towards something like normal. Granted, 2020 wasn’t exactly bad for the Black Knights — they finished 9-3 overall, beat Navy, and won the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy — but for all that last year’s team accomplished, this year’s squad looks to have more talent and a overall higher ceiling, though they face a much tougher schedule, too.
But hey, it’s not like 2020 was anybody’s idea of a good time.
This year, the Black Knights face two tough Power 5 opponents, the incumbent MAC Champion, a successful bowl-winning Sun Belt program in Georgia State, and two up-and-coming Group of 5 programs in Western Kentucky and Miami (Ohio) in addition to their perennial rivals Navy and Air Force. All things considered, this season promises to be an excellent test for an Army team that seeks to solidify itself as one of the best mid-majors in the country. As good as this team was last year, there remains substantial room for improvement.
For the 3rd time in 4 years.
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) December 19, 2020
Army Defense: The Bad Boys
Okay, so the truth is that it’s not going to be easy for Army’s defense to outperform their 2020 season. The Bad Boys finished 1st in the FBS in Total Defense, allowing just 275.3 yards/game and 5.0 yards/play. Wow! They were also…
- 2nd in scoring defense at 14.8 points allowed/game.
- 2nd in red zone defense, allowing just 15 touchdowns and 5 field goals in 31 opponent red zone trips.
- 2nd in passing defense with 160.8 passing yards allowed/game
- Tied for 7th in defensive touchdowns with 3.
- 9th in interceptions with 14.
- Tied for 13th in turnovers gained with 6 fumble recoveries plus the 14 interceptions.
- 18th in rushing defense, allowing just 114.6 yards/game and 3.8 yards/carry.
- 33rd in third down defense, allowing just 37% conversions.
- 35th in 4th down defense, allowing 47.5% conversions, mostly in short yardage situations.
Bottom line, this team could stand to generate a few more sacks and tackles-for-loss, but beyond that, they did about as well as they possibly could have. In fact, Army’s defense was so good last year that the team’s game plan heading into Army-Navy was essentially, “Play conservatively and win on defense.”
That worked, too.
The good news this season is that most of this defense is back, including the vast majority of that ball-hawking secondary. Army also returns a lot of experience along the defensive line but must replace the production of former team captain Amadeo West. Similarly, the team brings back starting LB Arik Smith and OLB Malkelm Morrison but must find a way to replace All-American LB Jon Rhattigan. It looks like rising yearling LB Spencer Jones might get the call opposite Smith, especially given how well Jones played in the bowl game against West Virginia, but that won’t be decided at Spring Camp. Nor will the other outside linebacker spot, though I’d probably put my money on either Andre Carter II or Fabrice Voyne if I had to make a bet right now. Reality is that both guys will likely see significant playing time. Whoever plays outside linebacker opposite Morrison needs to be a guy who can rush the passer and stop the run. In that, Carter might have the edge given that he’s 6’5” and 265 lbs.
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) April 13, 2021
Army Special Teams: No More Adventures!
Army Special Teams, and especially place kicking, have been an adventure for the Black Knights over the years. Last year, though, saw rising yearling K Quinn Maretzki establish himself as a reliable option in the place kicking game. Maretzki went 15/15 on extra points last season and 4/6 on field goals, though one of his misses came off a botched snap. Really, the only kick Maretzki actually missed was a 43-yarder during the bowl game that might’ve sent that game into overtime. Beyond that, he’s been a reliable, even boring kicker.
That is exactly what this team needs. No more adventures!
Meanwhile, Army finished 53rd in net punting last year with an average of 39.14 net yards/punt. However, those numbers by themselves are a little deceiving. Returning P Zach Harding had just two touchbacks all of last year. Meanwhile, he put something like 15 kicks inside the opponents’ twenty yard line and consistently flipped the field for the Black Knights.
Army gave up just 6.1 yards on average in punt returns last season while blocking a total of 3 punts and 7 kicks — good for 1st in the FBS in both categories. On net, then, special teams became a critical source of success for this team as the season progressed. The Black Knights need a new long snapper, but the key players are back, and this team has a lot of young, hungry kids looking to make a name for themselves. That process usually starts on special teams.
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) April 8, 2021
Army Offense: Shoot for First
The Black Knights started four different quarterbacks in 2020 and played six. For this reason, it is perhaps no surprise that the team’s biggest opportunities exist on offense. The team finished 4th in total rushing offense with just 273 rushing yards/game. That put them 32 yards behind first-placed Air Force, and while that might not seem like a lot, it can be the difference in a handful of critical conversions in must-have spots. Over time, those missing yards can and will cost this team games.
The Black Knights put up a very respectable 4.6 yards/carry last season along with 36 touchdowns, but they converted just 37% of their 3rd downs. The team had its share of explosive plays, but they also struggled at times to stay on schedule, especially against teams with a feel for their particular version of the triple-option offense.
To improve on last year’s performance, Army needs to find a quarterback who can run the full offensive playbook, hit hard between the tackles, read the defense and pitch perfectly, cut hard to the hole when running outside, and explode into open space.
Oh by the way, it’d be nice if this guy can throw a bit, too.
Spring Practice 4️⃣✅
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) April 8, 2021
We can argue about who fills that role the best, but as a matter of reality, QB Tyhier Tyler led all rushers in 2020 in limited action. Tyler had 139 carries for 578 yards (4.2 yards/carry) and 5 rushing touchdowns. He has explosive speed, an excellent cutback, and a decidedly aggressive sensibility between the tackles, but he completed just 2/4 passes last year and took 2 sacks. He also has a tendency to call his own number, which is maybe what he was asked to do but also frustrating on a team with elite speed at the slotback position. And yet, when we look at the other options, Tyler’s numbers stack up pretty well. QB Cade Ballard also went 2/4 passing and took 2 sacks, while QB Christian Anderson went 20/47 passing with 1 touchdown against 4 interceptions and another 2 sacks. Meanwhile, none of the quarterbacks rushed for more than 4.5 yards/carry.
Army quarterbacks played reasonably well in 2020, but there is definitely room for improvement. In 2016, Ahmad Bradshaw ran a balanced triple-option attack that saw carries split almost evenly between the quarterback, fullbacks, and slotbacks. With that, Army averaged 339 rushing yards/game and finished 1st in the nation. In 2017, Bradshaw carried much more of the load himself but also averaged 7.2 yards/carry by himself. The Black Knights again finished 1st with a whopping 362.3 rushing yards/game. In 2018, Kelvin Hopkins ran for just 4.5 yards/carry but consistently moved the chains through the air. Army finished second in total rushing with 312.5 yards/game but destroyed everyone in total time of possession with over 39 minutes because they could reliably move the chains in other ways.
So yeah. It’s not like there’s just one way that this team can succeed. However, if we’re going to run the quarterback 30+ times/game, that quarterback needs to average at least 5 yards/carry. Otherwise, we need him to read the defense effectively and spread the ball around or complete something like 60% of his passes in order to keep defenses honest.
The Black Knights have a lot of options and a lot of talent under center. Who’s gonna step up and be The Man?
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) April 13, 2021
Overall, the fullbacks had a good year. Jakobi Buchanan led the way with 111 carries for 474 yards (4.3 yards/carry). Buchanan and team captain Sandon McCoy did the majority of the short yardage work, with Buchanan getting more and more reps as the season progressed. Meanwhile, fellow B-Back Anthony Adkins was a little more explosive, averaging 5.9 yards/carry, while Cade Barnard averaged 4.8 yards/carry playing mostly in the lead-blocking role. The group loses McCoy this year but adds converted LB Wilson Catoe and rising yearling Tyson Riley, who looked quite good in limited work in 2020. It helps that all of these guys are hulking monsters with a varied skillset.
Considering the speed this team has at slotback, it’s imperative that they find a way to get the ball to their playmakers in space a little more often. SB Tyrell Robinson averaged a team-best 7.1 yards/carry last season and had legitimately elite speed. SBs A.J. Howard and Braheam Murphy were right behind him at around 5 yards/carry, though with far fewer carries. However, both guys looked good when called upon, and both could probably do more if given more opportunities.
The vast majority of Army’s skill position players return in 2021, along with a lot of experience along the offensive line if not a lot of returning starters. Thus, this offense should improve in 2021. Having spring football and a little more stability at quarterback ought to help, but the team faces a number of tough tests, too. Chief among them is finding an identity with the way they play in the coming year.
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) April 11, 2021