A year ago, there was always a definitive choice as to whom Army could hand the ball. More than one, actually. Larry Dixon was the fullback, and he was as dependable as the sunrise. In 12 games, he rushed for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns. Then there was the quarterback, Angel Santiago, who was good for 814 yards and 10 touchdowns. For the season, the Black Knights rushed for 3,358 yards, a per-game average of 296.5, fifth best in the nation. This season, there is no one with such reliability.
In eight games, fullback Aaron Kemper has rushed for a team-high 431 yards and two touchdowns. The Black Knights’ quarterbacks have accounted for 780 yards on the ground – Ahmad Bradshaw, 396 yards and four touchdowns in seven games; A.J. Schurr, 384 yards and two touchdowns in six games. The Black Knights’ average of 257.5 yards per game is ninth nationally. The Black Knights has played four games in which its leading rusher had less than 100 yards. For a team whose triple-option offense is dependent upon holding the ball, upon making sure the opposing offense is kept off the field, every yard not gained is a de facto invitation for the opponent to score.
“I thought one of [the running backs] might separate themselves from the pack but none of them have completely separated themselves,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said. “All of them do some good things. I think they all have qualities that are maybe better than the other guys in the group. Hopefully one of those young guys, Drue Harris, Darnell Woolfork, Spencer Scheff as he grows and develops, one of those guys might be the guy that can do everything and be an every-down, all-the-time guy. Right now, some of them are better blockers, some are better with the under-center stuff, some are better in the [shot] gun, some are better receivers, some are better inside runners, some better outside runners. All the B-Backs [fullbacks] I’m talking about. I think just finding a way to play them in the right situations and not completely tip our hand on who’s who. Can’t have every pass play be this B-Back and every inside run be this B-Back. We try not to do that obviously and tip the hand of what we’re doing. But there are some things they all do well and that other guys in the group do better than each one of them.”
Of course, the key is to find who can do what and how well they can do it. One on-going problem Army has against most teams is size, or the lack of it. Tulane, whom Army will play Saturday at Michie Stadium, has an offensive line that averages just under 306 pounds per man; the defensive line goes just under 320. In contrast, Army’s offensive line averages 253 pounds; defensive, 249. Think of it as one basketball team playing all centers vs. a team that has all small forwards. What’s a team with such a physical disadvantage to do?
“It is execution” Monken said. “Injuries and youth and all of those things, certainly can be reasons why there’s not production by a team. But I’m not going to use that as a crutch or an excuse. The guys that we have are the ones that we have. We’ve got to do a really good job of coaching those guys and getting them prepared to play each Saturday, including this Saturday. There are some challenges, but I’m not going to use that as an excuse. That’s our job to get those guys ready to go and get them ready to play. We’re going to get better when we sustain blocks longer on offense, and that’s the key to any offense. There are no offenses where you don’t have to block. We need to do a good job blocking and sustaining those blocks, and when we do, we’ll play better on offense. We’ve got to knock people to the ground, we’ve got to run through arm tackles and break some tackles, make some people miss at opportune times, and that will help our production, too.”
With a 2-7 record – Army’s fifth straight losing season – there could be a temptation for the Black Knights to start looking ahead; that is, start playing those who could be of help next season or beyond. Monken won’t bite.
“We’re going to play the guys that we think give us the best chance to win against Tulane and going forward,” he said. “That’s fair to our team. We’re not going to hold tryouts or treat it as a developmental squad. We want to win football games when we go to play so we’re going to play the guys we think give us the best chance. That may mean there are some new faces out there, but certainly will do our very best to win.”
Healthy quarterbacks help. Army has not had that luxury this season. Bradshaw has missed two games with leg and shoulder injuries; Schurr has played in six games. It is still Bradshaw who remains at the top of the depth chart. Monken said he “thinks” Bradshaw will be ready to start against the Green Wave.
“Neither Ahmad nor A.J. were 100 percent going into the game on Saturday [against Air Force],” he said. “ I wouldn’t say they are 100 percent right now, but there were a whole list of guys who went into that game and battled their hearts out that weren’t necessarily completely healthy. That is the case with a lot of football teams. We are just one of many teams that are battling that this season.”