Black Knights going into season with high expectations

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After Army football steamrolled to its winningest season in 20 years, many at West Point were buzzing with great expectations for Friday’s opener against Fordham.

Last fall, the Black Knights defeated rival Navy for the first time in 15 years, but Army coach Jeff Monken is keeping his team grounded this fall.

“Certainly what we did last year doesn’t count for anything this year,” said Monken, whose team went 8-5 and won the Heart of Dallas Bowl. “We have to earn every victory this year… What we did last year was give our guys the confidence that we’ve got the ability to do it. Hopefully, our guys have some more confidence going into this year—they should. And we’ll see if it pays off.”

The Black Knights will get their opportunity to see if it pays off early in the season. Army travels to national powerhouse Ohio State in Week 3 and in November, Army will go to Colorado to face service rival Air Force.

“Every game’s a challenge and it’s not very often that we play a game where we’re physically superior to the teams we’re playing,” Monken said. “And that’s just the nature of who we are as a program. And that’s OK. You don’t have to have to have the best players to win; you have to have the best team to win.”

Monken said that not having depth or an abundance of players at skill positions is always a concern. So to cut back on injuries, he instructs his players to avoid excess contact during the preseason. Monken said injuries at key positions can keep his team from being competitive. Injuries combined with monitoring rest are concerns going into this fall.

“We’ve toned down the amount of live contact,” Monken said. “When we compete and have interaction between offense and defense, it’s going to be intense and physical.”

He added that the team struggles to keep players healthy throughout the year.

Army graduated last year’s senior leaders on defense, Andrew King and Jeremy Timpf. King earned a tryout at the San Francisco 49ers’ rookie minicamp in May, but adhering to the Department of Defense policy that went into effect that month, he went on active duty as an infantry officer.

“Certainly, those two guys meant a lot to our team; they made a lot of plays; led our team in tackles each of the last three years,” Monken said. “I don’t know if you could manufacture two inside linebackers, team captain leaders that are going to be better than those guys.

“Now it’s the turn of the next generation of players to step in… and I’m confident we got good players there that are going to do fine.”

Monken said several returning defensive players could help offset the loss of the linebackers. Senior defensive lineman John Voit leads the Black Knight defense after making 26 tackles and three sacks in 2016.

“I think John Voit is going to be a big part of our defense as he has been,” Monken said. “He’s a veteran guy. He’s a great leader. He’s tough.”

Voit and junior quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw will serve as team captains this fall. Outside linebackers Alex Aukerman (6-1, 260) and Kenneth Brinson (6-2, 245) both return. Four-year starter Rhyan England will anchor the defensive backfield at safety.

One area that will be crucial for the Knights’ success: the run game. Army using its wishbone offense ranked second in the country in total rushing yards and last season’s leading rusher, junior Andy Davidson returns. Davidson will battle with sophomore Darnell Woolfolk for the starting fullback position.

Davidson, who converted to fullback after playing linebacker as a freshman, rushed for 961 yards on 190 carries and 12 touchdowns. Davidson ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns in last season’s opener versus Temple and also had 87 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the triumph over Navy. Meanwhile Woolfolk (109 carries, 600 rushing yards, nine touchdowns) also returns after breaking out for 119 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries in the bowl game versus North Texas. Both runners are capable of grabbing the starting spot.

“I think there’s a real battle there,” Monken said.

Army’s other top runner, Bradshaw, returns to lead the offense after rushing for 824 yards and eight touchdowns. Bradshaw also threw for 703 yards and four touchdowns, but was intercepted nine times.