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Another college football season is in the air, with August camp now officially underway at all three service academy programs. Last week Army, Navy and Air Force kicked things off with their first team workouts in preparation for the 2018 campaign.
Army's Black Knights sit atop service academy football right now after winning the Commander-in-Chief Trophy (awarded annually to the team with the best record against the other two academy teams) last year for the first time since 1996. Entering his fifth season on the Hudson, head coach Jeff Monken successfully completed the Black Knights’ rebuild last year by shutting out Air Force 21-0 on the road and then closing out the regular season with a narrow 14-13 win over arch-rival Navy in snowy Philadelphia. Army went on to defeat San Diego State 42-35 in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl to cap off a 10-3 season. But like Air Force and Navy, Monken’s team enters 2018 with new questions and issues to address.
Let’s look at one major key to watch for with each team during camp:
Army Black Knights: IS there Life After Bradshaw?
For the first time since the former Navy assistant took over the Army program in 2014, Monken is faced with his first legitimate quarterback competition. Who will be the successor to standout Ahmad Bradshaw?
Bradshaw capped his standout career with 184 yards on 32 carries along with two touchdowns in the win over SDSU to become Army’s fifth all-time leading rusher. His 1,746 rushing yards last season set a new service academy, single-season rushing record. Those are big shoes and production to replace. So who will the triple-option responsibilities fall to?
The smart money is on Bradshaw’s backup from a year ago, junior Kelvin Hopkins Jr. Hopkins has the most experience and knows the playbook. Despite limited playing time last season, Hopkins was thrust into action against Temple and led Army to an improbable overtime win against the Owls, thanks to his ability to move the offense with his arm. With 91 seconds left against Temple, Hopkins drove Army down the field, capping a 14-play 79-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Adams, tying the game up 28-28 with one second left.
Hopkins will be pushed by sophomores Cam Thomas and Christian Anderson. Whoever wins the job will receive plenty of support, thanks to the return of Army’s top seven rushers behind Bradshaw last year, led by fullback Darnell Woolfolk (on the preseason watch list for the Walter Camp and Maxwell Awards). Running back Kell Walker is the most explosive member of the Black Knights’ offensive backfield and saw snaps at quarterback in spring practice. It’ll be interesting to see how Monken utilizes the big-play junior.
Navy Midshipmen: Can Perry Dazzle Over a Full Season?
Unlike rival Army, the Navy Midshipmen are blessed with an abundance of experience at quarterback, with camp focused on junior Malcolm Perry.
After a 5-1 start last season, the Mids went on to lose their next-three games, leaving head coach Ken Niumatalolo searching for a spark. The longtime Navy head coach found it in dynamic slot back Perry, who came to Navy as a high school quarterback. Starting quarterback Zach Abey was nursing a sore shoulder when Niumatalolo opted to try Perry under center against visiting SMU. The move paid off in a big, very big way. Without completing a pass in the game, the versatile Perry ran for a career-high 282 yards on 33 carries with four touchdowns, as Navy held off the Mustangs 43-40.
Arguably the most electric player in service academy football this season, Perry is now the full-time starter for the Mids, while Abey has moved to wide receiver. The biggest question surrounding Perry is whether the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder from Clarksville, Tenn. can stay healthy for a full 13-game regular season (Navy gets an extra game due to NCAA rules for playing at Hawaii) as he absorbs the pounding quarterbacks take running the triple option.
Perry suffered a foot injury early in the third quarter of Navy’s 49-7 whipping of Virginia in the Military Bowl and was hampered in spring practice while still recovering. Abey took over for Perry and went on to be named MVP of the bowl game after rushing for 88 yards and five touchdowns.
Niumatalolo said during American Athletic Conference media days last month that he expects to play multiple quarterbacks, which will also likely include senior Garret Lewis. With Perry, Abey and even Lewis in short-yardage situations, Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have plenty of options to keep foes guessing.
Air Force Falcons: Can They Stop the Run?
The Falcons enter August camp with their biggest question not at quarterback, but rather on defense. Can Air Force improve a rush defense that ranked last in the country, giving up 5.9 yards per carry?
Head coach Troy Calhoun entered last season having to replace virtually every starter on defense. Flip the script to now, and Calhoun has seven starters returning, including most of his defensive line. And that’s not counting 6-foot-1, 330-pound junior nose guard Mosese Fifita.
Along with stopping the run, turnover margin will be a major focus. The Falcons ranked near the bottom nationally in that category a year ago, recovering just 5 fumbles and hauling in only 5 interceptions, while the offense turned it over 20 times. The Air Force defense must take some more chances and create opportunities this coming year after missing bowl eligibility in 2017.
Of course much will depend on who will serve as Air Force’s defensive coordinator. Former coordinator Steve Russ joined the staff of the Carolina Panthers leaving Calhoun a key coaching spot to fill. When asked last month about Russ’ replacement, Calhoun oddly remained coy about who it might be or even when a new defensive coordinator might be announced. It’s uncommon for a program to go six weeks, let alone six months, without replacing such a key member of the coaching staff.
Time will ultimately tell how Calhoun handles the Falcons’ vacant defensive coordinator position, if he opts to keep it in-house or even use multiple members of the staff to handle the job.
Price Atkinson is host of the weekly podcast “Yards & Stripes: Service Academy Football,” available on iTunes and Stitcher with a new episode every Wednesday during the season starting Wednesday, August 15th.