In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
Army is good at football. Their recent success is not a short-lived aberration.
The Black Knights lost key players at nearly every position but thanks to Jeff Monken's roster management and talent development, they return a lot of experienced upperclassmen, including Kell Walker, Darnell Woolfolk and James Nachtigal.
2017 Record: 10-3
Yes, beating Navy means everything but in tying the program record for wins, Army also beat Duke and San Diego State and shut out Air Force, their first-ever shutout of the Falcons.
They did all that while completing only 20 passes.
"People ask if we're going to throw the ball more. We're trying to throw it less," head coach Jeff Monken said in January.
Head Coach: Jeff Monken (5th Year, 24-26)
When Monken arrived at West Point in 2014, Army had one winning record since 1996. He has two in a row.
After winning just six total games in his first two years, the former Navy assistant and Georgia Southern head coach has led the Black Knights to 18 victories over the last two years, tying the program's highest two-year total.
QB Ahmad Bradshaw, OT Brett Toth, OT Rick Kurz, DE John Voit, LB Alex Aukerman, S Rhyan England
Barring a shocking — maybe impossible? — last-minute change, Ahmad Bradshaw will be at Army in 2018 but won't play football. The Black Knights' quarterback didn't play as a freshman in 2014 but since Army doesn't use redshirts, it's believed that counted as one of his four years of eligibility. Bradshaw ran for 27 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards the last three years.
Gone from an offensive line that helped Army average an FBS-best 362 rushing yards per game are four starters, including tackles Bret Toth (graduation) and Rick Kurz (transfer).
Defensively, Alex Aukerman is the big one. He had 30.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks the last two years, leading the team in both categories in both seasons. Four-year starting safety Rhyan England and their best pass-rushing lineman, John Voit, also graduated.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Kelvin Hopkins, QB/SB Kell Walker, SB Jordan Asberry, FB Darnell Woolfolk, FB Andy Davidson, G Mike Johnson, G Jaxson Deaton, C Bryce Holland
Not only did Army lead the FBS in rushing and rank 12th in yards per carry (5.7), they led the country in third-down conversions (54.4 percent), up nearly nine full percentage points from 2016.
"For the top 50 third-down conversion percentage defensive teams this year, 44 were bowl eligible,” Monken said. “On offense, 38 of those were bowl eligible.”
They'll try to remain a successful third-down team with a new quarterback. Monken and his staff experimented with options for Bradshaw's replacement throughout the spring, including trying slotback Kell Walker (below) under center.
For what it's worth, the 5-foot-9 Walker has never attempted a college pass but is averaging seven yards per carry in his career. Junior Kelvin Hopkins played well in the spring game (senior Luke Langdon and sophomore Cam Thomas also had opportunities) and finished the spring atop the depth chart. Monken said he hopes to pick a starter two weeks before their Week 1 game at Duke.
“If [a listed quarterback], Kell can play slot and B-back and all the other different things we did with him and I think we will be better off," Monken said in March. "If he's got to be the guy that carries the ball some from that position, we are not opposed to doing it.”
Regardless of Walker's role, the backfield is loaded. They have two of the country's best and most bruising fullbacks in seniors Darnell Woolfolk and Andy Davidson, along with senior slotback Jordan Asberry, who like Walker, is also averaging seven yards per tote in his career.
The line returns lost four starters but returns some experience, including guard Mike Johnson, who made a couple starts as a freshman in 2016 but missed all of last year with a torn ACL.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Chandler Ramirez, DE Wunmi Oyetuga, NT Ray Wright, DT Edriece Patterson, LB James Nachtigal, LB Cole Christiansen, LB Kenneth Brinson, CB Mike Reynolds, S James Gibson
Army's defense took a step back in several areas, including yards per attempt (4.3 to 5.6), yards per completion (12.1 to 12.7), takeaways (1.8 to 1.2) and points per play (0.38 to 0.42) but those numbers don't tell the full story. They were dominant in wins over Air Force and Duke (and good against Navy), improved their pressure (sack rate went from 5.5 percent to 7.7 percent) and were the second-best red-zone defense in the FBS, allowing opponents to score on only 69 percent of possessions.
Back from that unit are eight starters and nearly a dozen other key contributors, including converted linebacker Chandler Ramirez at defensive end. He was moved after Amadeo West suffered a setback while recovering a torn ACL that forced him to miss the entire 2017 season and could sideline him for all of this season.
"[Ramirez is] a guy that has worked incredibly hard in the weight room on his strength and just the preparation that he’s put in,” Monken said. “I know he’s really excited about the opportunity to start. It’s kind of his job.”
Wunmi Oyetuga and Ray Wright are back after breakout seasons and sophomore Edriece Patterson could be ready for his breakout year.
Elsewhere, despite the loss of Aukerman, the linebackers are in great shape. James Nachtigal (above) led the team in tackles and will be their most disruptive player at the line of scrimmage. His brother, also a linebacker, Troy Nachtigal, signed with Army's 2018 class. The secondary returns a lot of upperclassmen, namely seniors Mike Reynolds (corner) and James Gibson (safety).
QB Cam Thomas, K Landon Salyers
Per usual with service academies, you won't see many new faces make an impact early, but Army does have some sophomores (i.e. redshirt freshmen) who will hit the field for the first time.
Cam Thomas didn't play last year and had some opportunities under center in the spring. He was listed as the No. 2 quarterback after spring practice. And Landon Salyers is competing for the kicking duties and sat atop the depth chart after spring ball.
As is often the case with independents, Army's schedule is unconventional. They play two FCS teams (in back-to-back weeks, too), have three straight road games and don't play a road game after an Oct. 27 trip to Eastern Michigan.
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