Army head coach Jeff Monken had some major rebuilding to do with his team’s triple-option offense after the 2017 season, needing to replace four starters along the offensive line and quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, a group that sparked a Black Knights rushing attack that led the nation.
The changeover was virtually seamless. Army might have “slipped” from No. 1 in FBS to No. 2 in rushing offense, but it has continued its run of success with four new starting linemen and a new quarterback in junior Kelvin Hopkins Jr., carrying a 9-2 record and a No. 22 ranking into Saturday’s contest with Navy at Lincoln Financial Field.
The only returning starter on the line, senior center Bryce Holland, was joined by two players to his left who had combined for three career starts before this season. The two players to his right had yet to start a game, and sophomore tackle J.B. Hunter hadn’t seen any game action whatsoever.
“Those guys are guys that came out every single day and expected to work hard and expected to play,” Holland, one of the Army captains, said last week at the Army-Navy luncheon. “They knew what it took to become that player, so really everything they’ve done just came to fruition.”
Guard Jaxson Deaton, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound junior, started three games last season: one at left guard, two at right guard. Senior tackle Austin Schuffert was on the field for one start. Those two and sophomore right guard Peyton Reeder played in a combined 31 games in 2017.
Monken gave credit to offensive line coach Brent Davis, who also is the Black Knights’ offensive coordinator, for restoring an attack that averages 303 yards on the ground.
“He does a terrific job,” Monken said. “He’s a really good football coach. He’s got a great temperament for that position. He coaches with tremendous detail, works those guys really hard, and he builds a toughness in that group that I think allows them to play the best they’re capable of playing.
“That happens in college football. You can’t sign them to new contracts. Eventually they graduate, so we had a cycle where we lost a bunch of them a year ago, but these guys stepped up. When you’re part of a program that’s won, there’s a pride there that you don’t want to see the thing go in the other direction.”
Bradshaw finished with 3,038 career rushing yards before being succeeded at quarterback by Hopkins. After seeing action in six games in 2017, Hopkins is the team’s second-leading rusher with 783 yards, averaging 4.4 per carry, and has scored 10 touchdowns. He also averages 20.3 yards on 44 completions in the Black Knights’ limited passing game.
“Frankly, we didn’t know what we were going to get with Kelvin,” Monken said, “but what a tremendous job he’s done, and what a pleasant surprise it’s been to see him run the ball as effectively as he has because he really came to us as a guy that was a thrower in high school. He’s made some big plays with his arm for us this year, which isn’t common in a triple-option offense, but he’s done a great job.”
Senior fullback Darnell Woolfolk leads the Black Knights with 823 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, and has 37 career TDs.
The offense is very efficient at keeping the football. Army leads the nation in time of possession, averaging 39 minutes, 15 seconds. The team is No. 1 in third-down conversions at 57.1 percent and has converted an incredible 30 of 33 chances (90.9 percent) on fourth down, also tops in FBS.
It all starts with the rush, and Holland said the offensive line “takes a ton of pride” in its success.
“We believe that our success on offense starts with us,” he said. “It’s extremely important for us to do our job and impose our will because if we don’t do that, we’re not setting our teammates up for success.”