Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 13 Army.
Take a moment, Black Knights. Soak it in.
Like their previous attempts to down Navy, this bunch’s attempt at performing the alma mater was a mess, but considering they haven’t had to practice taking the lead singing role following a Navy game since their current players were in kindergarten, they can get a pass.
Army’s 2016 season was a long, long time coming for the Black Knights. After scraping together just 14 wins from 2011-2015 and having their asses handed to them by the Midshipmen every year since the turn of the century, Army finally broke through. The Black Knights beat Navy in a wonderfully messy 21-17 contest, one that ended with at least two lumps in every Army fan’s throats, one for the win and one for the scene of Brandon Jackson’s mother (the Army player who was killed in a car crash last fall) celebrating and speaking with the team after the victory.
The Black Knights went on to attend and win their first bowl game since 2010 and finish 8-5 on the year. Although they’ve struggled in the past to successfully construct anything resembling a winning program—not due to a lack of effort, some horny recruits might add—looking at what the Black Knights bring to the table this year should be enough to convince everyone from plebes to their hating-ass commander-in-chief that Army is ready to play some high-quality football.
Unlike this year’s Air Force team, which is tasked with replacing the majority of a top-20 defense, Army gets the pleasure of welcoming back nearly all of its key contributors from a year ago. Their breakout season was unexpected among those that, for reasons of loyalty or masochism, choose to follow the Army program, as it was completed with a crew largely consisting of sophomores and juniors.
Army’s cupcake schedule allowed for it to collect a handful of easy wins and finally rejoin the postseason. They played a trio of ACC teams, too, but it wasn’t the cream of the crop by any means—their two losses to Notre Dame and Duke came against two teams that finished 4-8, and their one victory against 7-6 Wake Forest was partially the result of defensive coordinator Jay Bateman taking part in WakeyLeaks. (Bateman was later suspended and fined $25,000.) But I won’t degrade Army’s strength of schedule—not one Power Five team in college football has a cupcake-free schedule, so there’s no need to bash a struggling independent looking to nab some gimmes when the alternative is having some top-20 squad pay top dollar to squash them. It’s the smart move, and if they’re as good as they seemed at times last year, the Black Knights can ride this clever scheduling and current wave of talent to another Navy win, another bowl game, and maybe a little bit of national respect.
The Army attack, like those of Air Force and Navy, makes use of an option-based offense—last year, they just made use of it to accrue 4,414 yards and 46 touchdowns on the ground. Schematically speaking, the Black Knights will post a single receiver out wide on the same side as their tight end, while two slot backs wait for the snap, one crouched a step behind the guard and the other behind the tight end—sometimes, they’ll sub the tight end for a receiver and, for a more compact package, bring in both wideouts so that they’re standing about three yards away from the guards. The constants for this version of the option offense are the ones you always see in the college flexbone—the quarterback lines up under center, trailed by his fullback.
Senior Ahmad Bradshaw will line up at quarterback again for the Black Knights, which is good news as far the running game goes. Bradshaw broke through last season after a so-so sophomore season in which the offense cycled through three quarterbacks before finding its guy in the Chicago native. The offense was ranked dead last among Division I teams in terms of passing yards per game, but as the perfect complement in a rushing attack that was the second-best in the land, Bradshaw saw concerns over his passing game dissipate as the wins stacked up. While it’d be nice to get some action for receivers Jeff Ejekam and Jermaine Adams, with a backfield and line as stacked as Army’s, it’s not hard to see why the Black Knights were completely fine without completing a pass in its season-opening win against Fordham. Still, with deep threat Edgar Poe lost to graduation, Army will need to get it together in the passing game, at least a little bit, if it doesn’t want to keep getting screwed every time it lines up for third down.
The offensive line rocks four starting seniors, all of whom earned experience last season thanks to a slew of injuries that forced nearly every returning linemen into action at some point. Life will only get better for the team’s two stud fullbacks, Andy Davidson and Darnell Woolfolk. The juniors will once again share the fullback slot after a year in which they combined for 1,561 yards and 21 scores—any team that can boast a fullback as its leading rusher and end above .500 should have a spot in your heart. Davidson, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound bruiser, was the team leader in rushing yards and scores, and figures to be both of those things again this year, though Woolfolk got the better of him in last weekend’s win against the Rams. The fullbacks will be joined by slotbacks Jordan Asberry and John Trainor, as well as a crew of underclassmen who should see limited time this year.
For the 2016 season, Bateman’s squad held opponents to 19.8 points per game in a 3-4 system that just the year before had allowed an average of 27.8 points. Now, Army’s out on the recruiting trail snagging three-star players; all the while, the Black Knights are developing a blossoming group of linebacker gems they discovered the past couple years. Replacing Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King will be a tall order for Bateman, but the third-year coach will have seven other starters from last year’s bunch, including returning starting linebackers Alex Aukerman and Kenneth Brinson, as well as junior James Nachtigal. As long as injuries don’t plague the entire defense the way they did last year’s secondary, the 2017 version of Army’s defense will do just fine.
The line welcomes back senior end John Voit, senior nose guard Andrew McLean, and junior nose tackle Wunmi Oyetuga, none of whom are exceptionally disruptive but figure to do their job well enough for one of the four linebackers to clean up. The most youthful group, the secondary will look to a pair of sophomores in corner Elijah Riley, who started as a rookie last season, and safety Jaylon McClinton to play above their experience, while Jalen Sharp, Gibby Gibson, and Rhyan England work their ways through the remaining slots in the rotation.
As far as college independents go, Ahmad Bradshaw’s about as fun as it gets.
Now a senior, Bradshaw’s been helming the offense since 2015, a season that saw him rush for just 450 yards and throw for a paltry 429. The following year, those numbers would get a nice little bump, as Bradshaw, with a couple studs sharing the backfield, ran for 824 yards and eight scores and pitched in another 703 yards and four scores through the air. He’s got a whip of an arm that allows him to take and take a handful of midrange (10-20 yards) shots every week; his throws have a tendency to collect an alarming amount of air any time he’s asked to go deep—it’s why all of his 30-plus attempts in the above video end with the receiver coming back to the ball. Lucky for him, Army’s offense doesn’t often require him to collect chunks of yards with his arm.
Bradshaw has enough power to burst through the first two levels, and the moves to navigate through the tight spaces that the triple option affords runners. When he’s dishing it out, he’s quick on the pitch and, passing aside, makes smart decisions with the ball. He’s not going to go down as the next flexbone great, but if he continues the pace he started three years ago, he could end his career as the first Army quarterback with a winning streak against Navy since the year he was born. That’s something.
Army cannot make the playoff, because the Black Knights play a weak schedule and have no conference championship game that can propel them out of a weak division and into the selection committee’s purview. That said, this team can challenge every single team on its schedule, minus Ohio State, and has the returning experience and talent to not only go back to a bowl game, but to possibly inch itself into the national scene by winning nine or—dare I say—10 games. Seven or eight wins is far more realistic, though.
I don’t think head coach Jeff Monken has done anything that would earn him being called a dick—he took the rap for getting recruits liquored up, but considering that took place a month into his gig, I’m not convinced that’s solely on him. He should avoid talking Jesus in the locker room, but with that as his biggest offense, the jury doesn’t have enough evidence to convict this man of being a dick. Of course, if I’m wrong, let me know.
Sept. 1: Fordham
Sept. 9: Buffalo
Sept. 16: @ Ohio State
Sept. 23: @ Tulane
Sept. 30: UTEP
Oct. 7: @ Rice
Oct. 14: Eastern Michigan
Oct. 21: Temple
Nov. 4: @ Air Force
Nov. 11: Duke
Nov. 18: @ North Texas
Dec. 9: @ Navy