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Angel or A.J.? You'd think Army would know by now

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WEST POINT – It was August, so the discussion was about quarterback. Angel or A.J.? Pre-season is the time to determine starters, even at a team’s most crucial positions. But it’s now five days before both the end of the season and to the most important game on the schedule. Army vs. Navy. But, incredibly, the question still remains. Angel Santiago or A.J. Schurr?

“We are working on that,” Army football coach Rich Ellerson said. “That is another good reason to close practices because we are working through that. As I said early in the season, we are paying attention as we prepare for this. Expect to see both.”

Prior to Army's previous game two weeks ago against Hawaii there was no reason to figure such a decision would need be made. Santiago had started every game; Schurr had entered as a reserve in just three. But Santiago completed just three of 10 passes for 30 yards and rushed for 23 more, so with Army trailing 28-7 at the half, Schurr entered the game. The Black Knights ended up losing 49-42, but Schurr finished with 47 yards rushing and four touchdowns. He also completed five of 10 passes for a career-high 122 yards, including a career-best 48-yard completion to Xavier Moss.

“What he did doesn’t necessarily surprise us, and we feel like there is some great upside in A.J.,” Ellerson said. “His performance is why we made that call at halftime, and he validated some of those expectations that we had for him coming from last spring.”

Which is why just prior to the game the Black Knights began preparing for on the first day of spring practice, the question remains. Angel or A.J.?

“This is back to the future, and its back to where we were at the beginning of the season,” Ellerson said. “The good news is that our first two quarterbacks are healthy and a lot of weeks during the year we couldn’t say that either of our first two quarterbacks were healthy. We’re paying attention. Angel has done a lot of good things this year and we haven’t forgotten about all of that. What you may consider a distraction is somewhat of a comfort zone for us.”

Who will eventually be behind center is just another in a series of backfield questions for the Black Knights. Despite on-going hopes that he’d return by season’s end, halfback Raymond Maples, hurt in the third game of the season against Stanford, is done. Fullback Larry Dixon, who injured his left arm against Western Kentucky Nov. 9, is probably out. And backup fullback Hayden Tippett, who missed the last four games with an ankle injury, may return. Ellerson said he’s never seen a team riddled with so many key injuries.

“Hayden is practicing as of this morning,” he said. “Larry can do almost everything but he is going to be in a club and I am not sure how available the doctors are going to allow him to be and what he is going to be able to do. Ray is not going to make it back. Ray was obviously a very experienced guy who has been our go-to guy since his freshman year. I’ve said this about a lot of our backs but this is especially true to Ray, he is so good with the ball in his hands, but he is also so good without the ball in his hands. He was a blocker at times and a competent receiver. As I said, he was a product of having played so many games at a high level for so long.”

In Maples’ absence, Terry Baggett picked up much of the slack, and he became the 18th player in Army history to surpass 1,000 yards for the season. Ellerson wistfully wondered what an entirely healthy backfield might have meant.

“That was something we were looking forward to, having Ray and Baggett and Dixon all back there together,” he said. “That would have been fun, but that’s the modern game. It’s hard to keep that many good guys out there that long.”

***
Baggett was a first-team choice and linebacker Thomas Holloway a second-team selection on the 2013 Capital One Academic All-America Division I football team.

It is the first Academic All-America selection for both players and is the second time in the last three years Army had two players honored; Andrew Rodriguez and Zach Watts were honorees in 2011.

Baggett set an Army one-game rushing record of 304 yards against Eastern Michigan Oct. 12. That was the highest Division I rushing total of the season until Auburn’s Tre Mason came up with the same number against Missouri last week in the SEC title game.

***
When Army captains Holloway, Jarrett Mackey and Michael Kime go to midfield for the coin toss Saturday they will be looking at an historic silver dollar.

President John F. Kennedy was supposed to use the coin during the 1963 Army-Navy Game. Fifty years later, the coin will be used to decide who gets the opening possession.

Kennedy was assassinated eight days before he was scheduled to participate in the ceremonial coin toss in Philadelphia. The game was postponed and played Dec. 7.

Navy’s captain that season, Tom Lynch, received the coin in the mail with a letter from Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance that read:

9 December 1963

Dear Midshipman Lynch,

I am forwarding the coin which the late President Kennedy would have used and would have presented to you had he made the toss of the coin at the Army-Navy football game this year. Please accept this memento of a memorable football game.

With best wishes,

Sincerely,
Cyrus R. Vance
Secretary of the Army

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will flip the coin Saturday.

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