Army LB explains why team has struggled

You can read my feature on Army senior linebacker and two-year team captain Cole Christiansen from this week here.

I didn’t include this in the story, but I asked Christiansen on Tuesday why he thinks his team has struggled the first five games of the season. I thought he gave a very thoughtful answer. Here it is:

“It’s a shame that it’s happened my fourth year, but I think it’s happened almost every year I’ve been here where we start with success and we get in the repetition of preparing for each team each week, installing new defenses, running new fits, you’re running new plays and as you’re fitting up these new gaps, you’re losing focus on the fundamentals. When you get to the ball carrier, you disappear late, you kill the angle, you wrap the legs, you run through the tackle, and we haven’t prepared poorly the last three weeks. I just think, and I think we’ve been going hard, but I think we just have lost focus on the fundamentals when you get to the ball carrier and every little detail that makes you a good football player, we’ve kind of strayed away from focusing on that.”

Christiansen added Tuesday that he felt like the team had a great day of practice and said, “I think if we practice like we did today, we’ll have a really good chance of getting better.”

Injury updates

After limping through the first half of the season with injuries to major playmakers, Army is about as healthy right now as a team can expect five games in.

Of the three players who went down with injury in the Tulane game — slotback Kell Walker, defensive end Jake Ellington and left guard Jaxson Deaton — only Deaton looks like he could be in danger of not suiting up this weekend.

Safety Jaylon McClinton appears on track to start this week after being held out for the last three games with injury. His defensive backfield mate Cam Jones, however, will remain out on Saturday. The trio of Ryan Velez, Cedrick Cunningham and Malkelm Morrison did a fine job of filling in with both starting safeties absent last weekend.

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10/6: Army news and notes

Army’s lost 42-33 to Tulane on Saturday to fall to 3-2 on the season, ending a 15-game home win streak in the process.

Here’s a few notes from the game:

First off, Tulane is really good. It may be hard for some to grasp, since those who follow college football know the school has been putrid at football for some time now. But under head coach Willie Fritz, the program has ascended to become a threat not only in its conference but to some Power 5 teams across the country. Army head coach Jeff Monken said he texted Fritz after the Green Wave’s thrilling victory over Houston to say, “Congrats. I wish you guys stunk.” He’s likely still wishing.

Army’s rushing total, 193 yards, was its fewest since last season’s opener at Duke. The 170 passing yards were the most this season. Monken said after the game that it wasn’t his plan to pass as much as they did (although Kelvin Hopkins did drop back on the first offensive snap of the game, eliciting an audible gasp from the crowd before the ball even left his hands).

Defensive end Jake Ellington, slotback Kell Walker and guard Jaxson Deaton were all injured during the game, but all of them were able to walk off the field. Ellington and Walker, who were hurt earlier in the game, returned to the game. All in all, Army, which has endured its fair share of injuries through the first four games, was able finish the Tulane game relatively unscathed in the health department.

Monken and his players talked about blocking and tackling over and over again after the game as the two culprits to the loss. I asked Monken if he plans on changing up the offensive line after a performance like that. He indicated that he doesn’t, just that his players need to be more mentally prepared to play athletic teams like Tulane.

The decision to go for two twice was a questionable one for Army, especially the second time when kicking the extra point would have put the Black Knights a touchdown and two-point conversion away from tying the game. Effectively, failing on that two-point conversion after Army’s last touchdown sealed the game. The final drive, which started on Army’s 10-yard line and had a few big plays — notably the hook-and-ladder where Camden Harrison caught a pass and flipped it to Walker — was effectively all for naught because Army was down by nine. Monken chalked his choice to forgo the extra points up to analytics.

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10/1: Injury update

Not unlike most teams more than a month through the season, Army has been ravaged by injuries. Quarterback Kelvin Hopkins, fullback Connor Slomka and safety Jaylon McClinton are just a few of the notable names on the team who have missed some time over the course of the first four games.

Coming off a bye week, some players have gotten healthy, while others are still on the mend. Here’s what we know for sure (and, more appropriately, what we don’t know) as Army prepares for its Saturday noon kickoff against Tulane.

Quarterback

Kelvin Hopkins, Jabari Laws and Christian Anderson have all thrown passes this season, and it’s anyone’s guess which one of the three will be in action on Saturday. When asked on Tuesday who was starting, head coach Jeff Monken said, “Don’t know.” If Hopkins can’t go, Monken said, “either Jabari or Christian” would start. In other words, a decision has not yet been made.

Monken said after the Morgan State game that Hopkins was healthy enough to play if needed, and he did come in for one snap. Since Army has no intention to rest its starters against Tulane, it’s likely a safe bet Hopkins starts, barring a setback.

Laws was injured in the first half against Morgan State and did not return. Monken was optimistic about his health on Tuesday, but noncommittal on whether he’d be a full go come Saturday.

Anderson, the only uninjured quarterback of the trio, proved at least serviceable in the Black Knights’ most recent victory in the absence of the first- and second-string signal callers.

Offensive line

Several offensive linemen have gone down with injury this season, and the bye week didn’t magically heal all wounds. Monken said, “There’s still guys who are banged up.”

He said there’s been three freshmen taking significant reps on the offensive line, a sign that Army will need to tap into at least some of its reserves against Tulane.

“It’s not a great situation to be in,” Monken said. “We would much prefer to be healthy and have the same five guys trotting out there.”

Safeties

Cam Jones is out at safety this week after both delivering and sustaining an injury on a tackle in the last game.

Safety Jaylon McClinton, who has missed two games after suffering an injury at Michigan, has a chance to return on Saturday. Monken said, “We hope that Jaylon will be ready.”

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8/31: Army news and notes

Quick personal note

Friday was my first Army game watching in person and covering, and boy did I get thrown right into the fire. I’ll be honest, I expected a lopsided result and sometimes the blowouts are harder to write. There was plenty to write about with this one despite there not being much scoring from either side. I had a lot of fun with this one. You can read the game story here.

Now, to the stuff you came here for.

Injuries

Fullback Connor Slomka was active every practice I attended during preseason camp, but he was inactive in the opener against Rice. Head coach Jeff Monken said that Slomka suffered a setback on an injury he’d suffered earlier. The expectation is that he’ll be ready for Michigan next Saturday. Monken’s full quotes on Slomka below:

“Connor got hurt in preseason camp and kind of was coming out of it and then had another injury while he was still in rehabilitation, and it just set him back. We’re hopeful he’s going to be ready to go this week. Our trainers are confident that he’s going to be ready to go to practice early this week. He’s a tough runner and we certainly value him on our team. I think he’ll help our football team and help our run game both with the ball and without the ball, so we bring guys in and we recruit to the system and we develop guys to play in the system, so when a guy goes down, if it’s a starter, it’s probably not going to change very much of what we do.”

During Friday’s game, many more Rice players went down than Army players. Right tackle J.B. Hunter, however, got injured late in the game. Hunter was starting at the position over Luke McCleery, who had been listed as the starter on the depth chart.

The only other notable deviation from the depth chart was freshman kicker Cole Talley, who got the nod over Landon Salyers. Salyers didn’t kick throughout most of preseason camp due to injury, but the indication isn’t that Salyers is still injured, but rather that Talley simply earned the spot. Talley was 2-for-2 on extra points in his college football debut.

Young blood

Monken was effusive of the way his young players stepped up. Defensively, he brought up names he’s been talking about all summer, guys like defensive tackle Nolan Cockrill, outside linebacker Jeremiah Lowery and cornerback Malkelm Morrison. Lowery got the start, Morrison played in nickel situations and Cockrill was one of a host of defensive linemen subbing in and out throughout the contest.

“I was proud of those guys,” Monken said. “A lot of those guys came through both offensively, defensively.”

He added of the importance of having such a close first game for his new role players, “Playing in those kinds of games and coming out victorious in a game like that, I think that helps them and it does two things: 1. It gives us some confidence. When you get your back to the wall, you can find a way to win and 2. It humbles the team if there’s any sense of, this is going to be easy or people are going to run for cover because we went 11-2 last year, it just gives an indication, don’t be scared of us. They’re going to line up and play us so it’s going to have to be our best effort every week.”

Fullback pecking order

Sans Slomka, it was almost purely Sandon McCoy out of the backfield. McCoy and quarterback Kelvin Hopkins toted the ball 20 and 21 times, respectively. No other ball carrier received more than four carries. The only other fullback who received a handoff was Cade Barnard (2 carries, 7 yards). While Barnard may be third in line right now, Rashaad Bolton saw action on a good portion of snaps, though it was only in a blocking role. Expect to see Bolton have some opportunities with the ball throughout the season, even if Slomka does return. However, it’s clear by the way the handoffs were divvied up on Friday that it’s likely going to be mainly a two-headed attack at fullback with Slomka and McCoy, at least for the near future.

Hopkins said of the fullbacks: “They’re all really good at different things and they all do different things well. I think we have a really good stable.”

Hopkins added, ““Just getting those guys as much experience as possible as early as possible, we’re only going to get better.” One of those guys was Jabari Laws, Hopkins’ backup quarterback. Laws, who Hopkins has been speaking very highly of throughout the offseason, grabbed a handoff and ran once for 3 yards against Rice.

‘Credit Rice’

Monken’s first comments at Friday’s postgame press conference, aside from the obligatory “credit Rice,” was a welcome to new athletic director Mike Buddie in his first football game as Army’s AD. “Heck of a first night,” Monken told Buddie.

Monken then shifted his focus to the job head coach Mike Bloomgren is doing at Rice, building the program into a contender in his second year. Referencing a comment Bloomgren made during the week, Monken commented, “He said we’re going to go to Army and go toe-to-toe with them and they did.”

Here’s some other things Monken had to say about the game:

On going for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 15-yard line less three minutes and three seconds into the game: “When we get in short yardage, we find a way to cross the line and it was very disappointing to be in third-and-2 and to run straight ahead twice and not make it. Credit Rice. They did a good job and we didn’t. Those are the things that we need to try to win the game. And fortunately, we forced them into a field goal.”

On why the go-ahead touchdown drive was successful while others weren’t: “Probably at that point, both teams were a little worn down and tired and we just gutted it out. We just gutted it out and that’s not to take anything away from Rice. They do have a physical tough football team and that’s developed over time.

“Our guys were just determined that they were going to find a way to put that thing in the end zone. I wish we done it a lot earlier in the night, but it just was the raw determination and the look in their eye, we just ran Army football. And ran the ball right at them and blocked them and sustained blocks and broke some tackles and it was just a great drive.”

On what Monken told his offense as Rice was driving late to try to tie it up: “Let’s get our one-minute offense ready. Make sure we go back through the Hail Mary passes and all those things because if they score and went for two, we’re going to have to put a drive together pretty quick.”

On how he felt after an emotionally taxing game: “Just really proud of the guys and the way they battled and their belief. They. Never. Flinched. Not one time did they flinch.”

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Jeff Monken on transfers

Army head coach Jeff Monken was asked this week about the amount of transfers in college football today. Here was his full response:

“I think it’s worth looking at and seeing how it all plays out. I think it’s, my opinion on that is you can trade schools and trade players and probably put together a good team. Our job as college coaches is to develop a good program where guys can grow and make it about the experience in the program. We’ve got a great school here. And there’s a lot of schools, I mentioned (Week 1 opponent) Rice. Rice is a tremendous academic institution. For a guy to be able to earn his degree from there and maybe find a different home for whatever reason that is. What I think is dangerous is guys that say, ‘Well I’m not the starting quarterback so I’m going to transfer. I’m not getting to play as many plays as I wanted or not playing the role that I wanted. I’m going to transfer.’ That just becomes a way for guys to be individuals and like the NFL game will go where it’s best for them. Doesn’t mean that’s the case for everybody. I want to make sure that here, we develop a good program, a program that our guys want to be a part of because they feel a sense of responsibility to each other and a sense of pride in representing West Point, this institution, the United States Army and when there’s that kind of buy-in, I think guys are less likely to go. And we’ve had guys transfer and leave. It doesn’t make them bad guys. It’s just what’s going to be best for them, and most of the decisions that our guys make to leave don’t have anything to do with football. It’s typically the other side of it. It’s academics, or it’s the military side, the commitment. But there’s guys that make those decisions based on football, and that’s just part of the game. It’s always been part of it. I also think on the side of the institutions and I’m sure that’s what the NCAA is evaluating — and there’s going to be some good hard looks at it as we get through it for a couple years — is what they want and to be able to have the experience they want in college. Whether that comes with a penalty, having to sit out and those kinds of things, that’s for somebody else to decide. But I think we should try to create opportunities for the young men and women who play sports to be able to have the best experience that they could possibly have, participating in the sport they love.”

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Army Week 1 depth chart

QB: Kelvin Hopkins, Jabari Laws, Christian Anderson

FB: Connor Slomka, Sandon McCoy

LT: Alex Herndon, Mike Johnson

LG: Jaxson Deaton, Noah Utley

C: Peyton Reeder, JB Hunter, Noah Knapp

RG: Jack Sides, Dean Powell

RT: Luke McCleery, Zack Ward, Kamaron Holloway

A-RB: Kell Walker, Malik Hancock

T-RB: Artice Hobbs, Brandon Walters, Dominic Distefano

TE: Zach Saum, Chris Cameron

WR: Cam Harrison, Michael Roberts

WR: Kjetil Cline, Christian Hayes

SAM: Amadeo West, Joe Stephenson

END: Jacob Covington, Jake Ellington

NG: Rod Stoddard, Nick Stokes

NT: Kwabena Bonsu, Nolan Cockrill

RUSH: Jeremiah Lowery, Donovan Lynch

WILL: Arik Smith, Ryan Parker

MIKE: Cole Christiansen, Kemonte Yow

BC: Elijah Riley, Malkelm Morrison

BS: Cam Jones, Cedrick Cunningham

FS: Jaylon McClinton, Ryan Velez

FC: Javhari Bourdeau, Akyah Miranda

K: Landon Salyers, Cole Talley

P: Zach Potter, Zach Harding

KO: Andrew Talley, Landon Salyers

H: Zach Potter

LS: Scott Fanick, Paul Lawless

PR: Akyah Miranda, Javhari Bourdeau

KR: Brandon Walters, A.J. Howard

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Jeff Monken likes where he is

In light of a couple of articles coming out already predicting a possible move to a Power 5 school in 2020 for Jeff Monken, I asked the Army head coach about how happy he was at West Point. My tweet on part of his response was well received. Below is his full quote:

“I love this place. There can’t be a better place to lead and inspire young people to do great things. They are so motivated. Our faculty, our staff, our students, they’re here for a purpose and they know exactly where they’re going when they graduate. There’s no wishy-washy, I’m not sure. They know exactly what they’re doing and I like people that have direction and a purpose. That’s why I love this place. It’s my opportunity to serve. I never served in the military and it might be one of the great regrets I have in my life. But in some way this is my opportunity to serve, and I love being the coach here.”

For what it’s worth, both the Yahoo article and the story on The Athletic predicted Monken could be whisked away by Illinois if that job were to open up. That will something to speculate upon another day. There’s still a 2019 season to play.

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Brett Toth signs with Eagles

ESPN reported that former Army offensive tackle Brett Toth was granted a military waiver to sign a three-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. He became the second military academy athlete to sign with an NFL team since President Donald Trump‘s change of policy. I asked head coach Jeff Monken for his reaction to Toth getting signed.

Monken: “I was thrilled for him. It’s a great opportunity for Brett. I certainly have a great source of pride for our program. For our academy. For the United States Army. To have a guy represent all three of those organizations. We’re all one organization. Each of those represented individually as well with what he does and just this opportunity to play at an elite level. Those are the best football players in the world. They’re the best football players on the face of this planet and he gets to go and play with them and be one of those guys. I think he’ll do a great job for them. He’s tremendously talented. He’s a hard worker. He’s tough. I’m really excited for him.”

Offensive lineman/former teammate Peyton Reeder: “I was excited. We heard about it a couple days before. I was really close with Brett when he was here and I think he’s going to do great things. I think his athletic ability is unmatched.” Reeder added, “It’s every little boy’s dream to be able to play in the NFL.”

Offensive coordinator/O-line coach Brent Davis: “Last year we couldn’t really replace Brett Toth. Only once in a career here do you get an offensive lineman like Brett Toth.”

After graduating in 2018 with a degree in nuclear engineering, Toth fulfilled his first year of military service as a second lieutenant. He turned heads as the first player from West Point to represent his Army in the Senior Bowl.

According to USA Today, Toth stands a good chance at making the Eagles 53-man roster. Glenn Erby writes, “Toth won’t have a guaranteed spot on the roster, but it’s hard to see the Eagles going through the whole waiver process, just to cut him in two weeks.”

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8/7/19: Army preseason camp news and notes

After a Monday practice that fell short of expectations, Army picked back up on Wednesday with an effort that at least satisfied, if not enthused, head coach Jeff Monken. About half of practice was filled with heavy rain, but the players didn’t seem bothered by it. They were more interested in making up for the lack of effort two days prior. As nose guard Rod Stoddard assesed afterwards, “I thought we got back into the rhythm.”

Linebackers stepping into new roles

The most impressive play I saw on Wednesday wasn’t a touchdown or an interception. It was a deflection by an outside linebacker. A ball was lofted to Dominic DiStefano and as he reached out to grab it, Jack King leapt off the ground and dove forward, knocking the ball away with his fingertips.

When Monken gushes about his young linebacking corps, he starts to ramble. It’s not because he can’t stay focused. Rather, he keeps bringing up new guys that he’s excited about. One day it’s Kemonte Yow. The next it’s Cedrick Cunningham. On Wednesday, one of those guys was King.

We’re really excited about how he’s grown and developed,” Monken said of King, before going off on a tangent again about how he believes that linebacker Arik Smith has a lot of the same characteristics of senior Cole Christiansen. It’s a good problem to have.

He raved about Joe Stephenson, saying that both he and King were standouts at special teams last year and should play major roles in helping to fill the Kenneth Brinson-sized hole at outside linebacker.

2020 already?

The most interesting part of Monken’s defensive breakdown is that he’s already thinking about 2020. After combing through a list of impressive incoming sophomores, he says that it will come in handy with all the seniors he’ll lose on the defensive side of the ball at the end of the season.

It’s an insightful look into the mind of a Division I head coach. There are so many boxes to check before the Aug. 30 opener at Rice, and yet, Monken is still keeping an eye on the following season.

“I’m glad there’s some names we’re able to call out and make some contributions this year and be able to carry the torch for the next season,” he said.

Freshman quarterback interview

I spoke with Jemel Jones, one of five freshman quarterbacks who have been practicing with the team for two days now. It’s been quite the awakening, between the whole roster getting sent back to the locker room on Monday to the pouring rain on Wednesday.

How have the first few days of practice been for you?

“It has definitely had been a rough past days, highs and lows, but we’re not letting the lows affect us. Be consistent.”

What advice has senior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins given you and the other freshmen so far?

“Definitely the footwork in the offense and just slowing down the mental aspect.”

You were at the prep school last year. What’s your assessment of how the team looks this year in relation to last year?

“If we just keep working hard, we’ll be the team we want to be.”

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8/5/19: Army preseason camp news and notes

At Army football practice on Monday, following a Sunday session that was closed to the media, several offensive players went down on the sun-baked field with minor injuries that aren’t expected to hold them out of practice. It was the fifth consecutive day of camp. The team is off Tuesday.

Offensive injuries

Linemen Mike Johnson and Jaxson Deaton were briefly sidelined during practice, but with an offensive line that feels like it’s at full strength, the group didn’t experience much of a drop-off in their absence. Peyton Reeder, a right guard — who plans to switch positions with Jack Sides at center once the season gets underway — missed the spring with an injured right shoulder, the result of “wear and tear.” He said after his first day of preseason camp, he was fully recovered despite his extended inactivity. “Feels great,” Reeder said. “The best. Feels like a new shoulder.”

Said Sides of the veteran line’s ability to insert guys into different positions, “It’s invaluable. For example, two guys went down today and we were able to roll guys in.”

After making a catch, tight end Zach Saum landed awkwardly on his ankle and tumbled forward. It didn’t appear to be serious, as he had it taped up and shouldn’t miss action.

Slotback Kell Walker knelt on the field for a few minutes after one play. After sitting a couple plays out to rehydrate, he only seemed to get stronger, reaching high above his head to catch passes and blazing past the defense to the end zone unscathed. After one such touchdown, he stuck one finger in the air, joined by quarterback Jabari Laws. The two chest-bumped in celebration.

Defensive standouts

Though the offense had its moments Monday, the defense stepped up and made some big plays during the “CIC” drill (where contact is allowed). Malkelm Morrison intercepted another pass — he had a big one on Friday during one-on-ones — this time with textbook form. The rising sophomore turned his head at the perfect time and showed off his vertical to pilfer the pass.

“I’m really impressed with some of our younger secondary players,” Monken said Saturday. “Guys that were freshman last year.”

Linebacker Jon Rhattigan, who opened camp with two interceptions on the first day, continues to have a steady outing. He busted through the offensive line to force a loss of yardage on a run from quarterback Christian Anderson. Kemonte Yow, another (likely reserve) linebacker Monken has praised in the early going, timed the snap flawlessly on another play, causing the offense to backpedal again.

Freshmen join the group

Monday also marked the first time the freshmen were able to practice with the rest of the team. Monken didn’t single out any one rookie who stood out after practice, offering more a preview than a synopsis in saying, “By the time we get to Saturday and we scrimmage, there’s going to be a few more of those freshman involved and we’ll be able to find out about those guys that maybe are at the top of that group right now.”

One final thought

I asked highly touted freshman Anthony Adkins, a running back who by build alone already looks like he belongs in the backfield rotation, about his recruiting journey and some of the challenges that came along with that. The Kentucky product went to high school about an hour and a half from Louisville and had originally committed there before a coaching change re-opened his recruitment. Adkins deferred to dive back into his past, instead providing me with this: “It is what it is. I’m just happy to be where I’m at right now.”

In Adkins’ first day being able to speak to the media, I understand him wanting to keep focused on the present. It’s interactions like these that make me grateful that any player is willing to open up to me upon first greeting. I will always push to learn more about the whole person, not just the athlete, because that’s my job. But I can respect when the people I interview aren’t ready to let me into their personal lives right away. If I were on the other side, I’d imagine I would be the exact same.

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