Monken believes less can equal more in 2015
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Monken believes less can equal more in 2015

AFAN: Air Force, Army, Navy newsletter on Black Knights spring football

Photo: Army's football team assembles for the alma mater after a game at Michie Stadium.

Army West Point football lined up three senior 1,000-yard rushers in last year’s backfield, but second-year Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken believes his team can be better this year despite the graduation of Raymond Maples, Larry Dixon and Terry Baggett.

If that’s sounds incongruous, here is what he means:

“We may be less talented than a year ago, but we may be a better football team,” said Monken following spring football. “I’m counting on being a better football team, having been through another spring and fall camp. Everything should be more comfortable. Guys should be in comfort zone in terms of things we call and thing we ask them to do.”

Remember, such a statement comes from a coach whose Georgia Southern teanm beat Florida of the Southeastern Conference on the Gators’ home field in 2013, 26-20. Nobody would suggest Georgia Southern, then a Football Championship Subdivision program before moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2014, was more talented than Florida.

“We had a productive spring from a standpoint of improvement,” Monken said. “We still have a lot of room for improvement and we have to get a lot better, but our guys did a good job from practice one to practice 15. The installation went in a lot quicker compared to last spring, which we thought it would. The pace of practice, the understanding of the expectations for each drill and moving from one drill to the next all were handled well by our guys.
“We were able to get a lot of our offensive and defensive schemes in, as well as special teams. We aren't completely there yet, but a whole lot more than we got a year ago. I think it helped our guys develop and come along faster and gave us an opportunity to really evaluate and find out about each one of our guys individually.”

The nature of football, though, is that teams that learn to work as a unit can beat more talented lineups. Such cohesiveness begins at quarterback.

Ahmad Bradshaw, a 5-foot-11, 196-pound sophomore in the fall, turned in a strong spring, but A.J. Schurr (6-0, 209) didn’t participate in spring football while he rehabbed from off-season shoulder surgery. He has three career starts, but he has played better in relief than as a starter.

Schurr’s absence – he began throwing lightly by the end of camp – gave Bradshaw more reps in the spring, but Monken had to limit the contact on him due to lack of depth at the position. The only other two quarterbacks available were sophomore Matt Kaufmann and freshman Seth Gonzales.

“We had to be careful in the spring,” Monken said. “Hoepfully, he’ll be able to run hard get out in the open field, but we won’t find that out until we turn him loose.”

Monken also will have to wait until fall camp to learn how Schurr has recovered physically and how much Bradshaw can improve mentally while studying film in the off-season.

“The more he learns and the more he practices and plays the more everything will slow down,” Monken said. “Until things slow down sometimes you’re unsure because everything is going so fast you can’t make decisions you can’t make the right reads. The more you play the easier those things come to you naturally.”

However, the quarterback should have a more stable offensive line in front of him than a year ago when the coaching staff shuffled the starters throughout the year. As the season came to an end, younger players that gained experience began to emerge.

Senior Matt Hugenberg is back to anchor the line. He expects to be better after dropping his weight from 300-plus to 290.

"Matt Hugenberg bulked up over 300 pounds, and we didn’t feel he was moving as well as he could have,” Monken said. “He lost weight and got to 290. It’s improtant to have a guy there we can count on; he’s a veteran.”

The post-spring depth chart lists senior Justin Gilbert at left tackle, sophomore Mike Houghton at left guard, junior Lofi Tamasese at right guard and senior Drew Hennessy at right tackle.

Army will line up its least experienced unit behind the quarterback.

Senior Matt Giachinta, voted a team captain, was limited in the spring, which allowed junior Aaron Kemper to gain more snaps. The slotbacks are sophomore John Trainer, sophomore Louis Napoles, junior Joe Walker and junior Elijah St. Hilaire.

“I thought Aaron (5-6, 212) did a nice job and had a good spring,” Monken said. “He’s a hard runner; being as short as he is, he plays low to the ground. He gets his pads down and runs hard. When he runs straight and tries to knife into a gap and churns his legs, he’s a powerful runner.” He got a lot of opportunities with Matt banged up in the spring. We’ve got to have guys healthy in fall camp.””

Among the four players at the two slotback positions, only Walker carried the ball last year. The 6-0, 199-pounder finished with 18 carries for 75 yards and two touchdowns.

Army also is counting on improving its passing game to end its 13-game losing streak to Navy and four-year bowl game drought.

Junior Edgar Poe is a returning backed up by sophomore Jermaine Adams. With Xavier Moss shifting to defense with a starting role at safety, senior DeAndre Bell and sophomore Jeff Ejekam have opportunities.

Poe finished with 10 catches for 199 yards and one of Army’s three touchdown receptions (the other two were by Moss), but only Bell had a reception last year (one for minus-4 yards). Monken praised Poe’s play in spring ball.

Those questions will have to wait until fall camp as the Black Knights prepare for their season opener against Fordham Sept. 4 at Michie Stadium. The Black Knights face Air Force on Nov. 7 at Colorado Springs and Navy on Dec. 12 in Philadelphia. Army has a bowl tie-in for 2015 with the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.

“It seems like a way off, but I know it’s right around the corner,” Monken said. “I’m anxious to get our complete team here with the guys from our prep school and the guys we recruited.”


--- Tom Shanahan has featured Army, Navy and Air Force athletes for nearly 30 years in the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Raleigh News and Observer. He attended his first Army-Navy Game after John Feinstein wrote in his book on the rivalry, “A Civil War,” everyone should attend the Army-Navy Game at least once.



--- Tom Shanahan has featured Army, Navy and Air Force athletes for nearly 30 years in the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Raleigh News and Observer. He attended his first Army-Navy Game after John Feinstein wrote in his book on the rivalry, “A Civil War,” everyone should attend the Army-Navy Game at least once.

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer,, and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."