Photo: Kelvin Hopkins
Army’s next football season is a blank page until the season opener Aug. 31 at Rice, but last season sparked imaginations. What if the Black Knights expand their passing game within their grinding triple-option offense?
The receivers and slot backs are excited about the possibilities. Fans and the media are intrigued. Opponents are fearful.
About the only person calling for caution is the quarterback whose arm created the awareness, returning senior starter Kelvin Hopkins, the MVP of the Army-Navy Game.
And why shouldn’t he? Let’s not forget he is a West Point officer-in-training that understands chain-of- command principles: Read: the game plan from head coach Jeff Monken on down to offensive coordinator Brent Davis calling the plays.
“It’s Army football, so you know exactly what to expect,” said Hopkins, a hint of a chuckle in his voice at the prevalence of such speculation. “It’s going to be a run heavy offense. That’s our identity. That’s who we are.”
But the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder from Charlotte Independence does acknowledge there is room for Army to throw the ball.
“We definitely have a lot of athletes all over the field that can do different things,” he said. “There are going to be a few tweaks that we can do to keep defenses on their toes. Our offensive line is very athletic. They’re a little bit smaller than they’ve been in the past, but they’re athletic, hungry and aggressive. I’m excited to see what that group of guys can do this year.”
There are three returning starters up front: senior Jaxson Deaton (6-4, 310), junior right guard Peyton Reeder (6-6, 290) and junior right tackle J.B. Hunter (6-4, 265).
In the spring game that the Black won 35-28 over the Gold in overtime on Friday at Michie Stadium, the defense was instructed “hands off” Hopkins with his red jersey. Most of the playing time went to rising sophomores Tyhier Tyler (5-8, 153) and Jabari Laws (5-9, 165) as they competed under live conditions for the backup job. Cam Thomas left West Point at the semester break for Jacksonville University. Christian Anderson, a rising junior that hasn't played his first two seasons, missed the spring game with an ankle injury.
Hopkins started for the Gold before Laws replaced him and Tyler started for the Black. Tyler threw touchdown passes of 13 yards to Rashaad Bolton and 56 to J.C. Watson, but Laws’ instincts have been rated better at running the triple-option.
Hopkins’ triple-option skill and arm accounted for his breakout season in 2018, his first year as a starter after backing up Ahmad Bradshaw the previous two seasons. Hopkins was the first Army quarterback to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season, finishing with 1,017 rushing and 01,026 passing.
His play led to these 2018 highlights:
1) An 11-2 record that marks the most wins in program history.
2) National rankings in the final polls for the first time since 1996: No. 19 in AP/writers and No. 20 in USA Today/coaches. With Hopkins among 13 returning starters -- seven on offense and six on defense -- a preseason Top 25 ranking is likely.
3) Winning the Army-Navy Game for the third year in a row.
4) A second consecutive Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy with a sweep of Air Force and Navy.
5) A third straight bowl victory, routing Houston 70-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Hopkins carried 208 times for 1,017 yards and 17 touchdowns. He completed 51-of-93 passes (51.8 percent) for 1,026 yards with six touchdowns with three interceptions.
His total was 50 more passes than run-oriented Bradshaw attempted (14 of 43) in a 10-3 record in 2017. But it was only two more that Bradshaw threw (40 of 91) in an 8-5 season in the 2016, when the Black Knights trailed on the scoreboard more often than in 2017 and 2018.
An Army quarterback hasn’t attempted 100 passes since Trent Steelman directed a 7-6 record in 2010. He was 71 of 133 (53.4 percent) for 995 yards and seven touchdowns with three interceptions. He rushed for 727 yards on 197 attempts.
“I think throwing will come within the flow of the game,” Hopkins said. “If that’s what’s happening at the moment and that’s how coach Davis feels we’ll absolutely do it. If the run game is gaining four or five yards a carry, then we don’t need to switch up. It’s the flow of the game.”
The added threat of the pass also helps create some defensive doubt on stacking against a run play. Army led the nation in third-down conversions (112-196, .571) as well as converting fourth down plays (31-36, .861). Army's 20.0 yards per pass completion also led the nation, although the top four teams were triple-option offenses (Army, Georgia Tech, Navy and Air Force).
Expect differences in Army’s offense to be more subtle based on Hopkins’ 2019 goals. As a second-year starter, who has been named one of three captains for 2019 along linebacker Cole Christiansen and cornerback Elijah Riley, he says his focus this spring was better understanding the offense. Instead of only reciting the plays sent to the huddle, he wants to recognize the reason behind Davis’ play calls.
“I want to understand the offense as much as possible,” he said. “I want to know the O-line calls. Why do we do things in certain situations? That’s been the main thing for me this spring.”
That kind of maturity and sophistication can spring a play a half-step or half-second quicker – whether it’s a run or a pass.
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