Photo: Kelvin Hopkins Jr.
The sports world’s biggest names routinely enter “The Jungle” on the Jim Rome Show, but the host still changes pace on his audience craving irreverent smack-talk with a guest that represents an ultra-conventional background.
Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr., MVP of the 119th Army-Navy Game, appeared last week while preparing to lead the No. 22-ranked Black Knights (10-2) against formerly ranked Houston (8-4) at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Tx.
“It was an opportunity to talk Army football and get our name out there,” Hopkins said after Thursday’s practice. “It was an opportunity talk about the brotherhood, about what we have going on here how and hard we’re working to put things on display. I’m the guy talking about it, but there are a number of guys here doing a lot of great things.”
Hopkins may not have the Q-rating of a Super Bowl MVP quarterback guest, but, with the exception of Roger Staubach, now 76 years old, Super Bowl quarterbacks haven’t been through boot camp before starting a college career that demands balancing football with classes at an elite academic institution and a military lifestyle. To play in the Super Bowl can be done with a lot less -- pro talent, yes, but mostly good fortune to end up with the right team.
The Vietnam quagmire combined with the escalation of pro football salaries in the 1970s put an end to Roger Staubachs committing to Army, Navy or Air Force, but there remain opportunities for 5-foot-10 quarterbacks like Hopkins that play bigger than their physical stature.
Rome played it straight, asking Hopkins what the rest of us don’t know: What it’s like to play in the grandest rivalry in college sports. It doesn’t have the Super Bowl TV ratings, but its special appeal rivets an audience across the world from the soldiers in Afghanistan’s mountain outposts to sailors on ships at sea.
“The buildup is insane,” Hopkins told Rome. “All week different things are going on around school. People are talking to you, graduates are emailing and texting you trying to tell you how much the game means. It’s a great atmosphere – everybody yelling ‘Beat Navy’ – leading up to the game.”
What makes Hopkins special is he can transcend.
Rome’s audience was but one example, but more important to Army football has been his ability to transcend the triple-option playbook with an added passing dimension.
As great as Ahmad Bradshaw was the past two years as Army’s quarterback -- ending Navy’s 14-game winning streak in their rivalry with a victory in 2016 and winning West Point's first Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy since 1996 in 2017 -- Hopkins’ ability to throw the ball allowed Army to break more barriers.
The 2018 season marked the first time Army captured the CiC outright in back-to-back years; the Black Knights beat Navy 17-10 victory two weeks ago after defeating Air Force in November 17-14. Army has already posted its first 10-win regular-season and now has a chance for the program’s first 11-victory campaign with a bowl victory.
Individually, Hopkins can become the first Army QB with 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 passing in a single season. He needs 153 yards rushing and 44 passing in the bowl, having entered with 197 carries for 847 yards and 12 touchdowns and had completed 48-of-90 passes (53.3 percent) for 956 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Army-Navy Game is the ultimate “throw-out-the records” cliché example, and the Midshipmen lived up to history despite ending with a 3-10 record. Navy was one play from establishing early momentum until Hopkins’ arm intervened. It was arguably the biggest play of the game despite being only the third snap of the day.
When Navy won the coin flip, the Midshipmen opted to kickoff. Their hope was to force a three-and-out, gain good field position and take an early lead.
The strategy was playing out with a kickoff to the 2-yard line returned only to the 18. After a pair of 2-yard runs, Army faced third-and-six from its 22. An incomplete pass on third down followed by a routine punt could leave Navy tasting field position at the 50-yard line or better.
But on third-and-six Hopkins completed a 17-yard pass to wide receiver Glen Coates that wasn’t as easy as it looks on the play-by-play sheet.
The call was to get Navy’s defense flowing to Hopkins’ left as he pivoted and rolled right, but Navy outside linebacker Nizaire Cromartie read the play. He blitzed and hurried Hopkins deeper to the right, away from his receivers.
Hopkins’ first option, slot back Donnell Diego, had started running left before he pivoted and ran to the right flank. But linebacker Elan Nash had Diego blanketed.
Hopkins’ second read was 10 yards deeper to Coates, who had a step on cornerback Jarid Ryan and two on safety Sean Williams. Hopkins delivered the ball high where only Coates could pull down the ball.
“It was a great play call -- something to get them off balance, something they hadn’t seen this season,” Hopkins said. “(Coates) ran a great route to get open, the O-line gave me great protection and I was able to make the throw. He made a great catch over two people and squeezed the ball.”
On the next play, slotback Kell Walker broke off a 51-yard gain to Navy's 10. On the next snap, Hopkins scored the first of his two touchdown runs.
“It was good to get that drive going,” he said. “Nobody wants to go three-and-out on the first drive of the game. You want to stay on the field and keep the chains moving. Kell busted off that 51-yard run; that was huge to get the drive going.”
The quickness of the five-play, 82-yard scoring strike made it seem the rout might be on, but Navy’s defense slowed the Black Knights the rest of the game.
Army’s second possession ended in a three-and-out punt and its third and final one in the first quarter on a missed field goal. The Black Knights didn’t take a two-score lead until the third quarter, settling for a field goal and a 10-0 lead with 4:33 left in the period.
In all, Navy forced four punts in addition to stopping two fourth-down conversion attempts. Army needed a turnover -- a fumble recovery linebacker Kenneth Brinson recovered on his strip-sack -- at Navy’s 22-yard line to clinch the game. Hopkins scored four plays later on a 1-yard run with only 1:28 left in the game for a two-score lead.
In previous years, Navy four-year starting quarterback Keenan Reynolds kept alive the Midshipmen's winning streak over Army with late pass completions that ended Army's upset hopes.
This time it was Army with the critical pass completion. That’s how big Hopkins’ third-and-six completion turned out. It’s one of the reasons Army has a chance for its first 11-win season if it can defeat Houston.
“We want to go out there an execute; we’ve had a great week of practice,” Hopkins said. “There are a lot of guys (for Army) playing their last game in college or last game in general. It speaks to the effort and emotion on both sides of the ball. We want to show world what Army football is about.”
* * *
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055
Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."