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Countdown begins in earnest

WEST POINT – The hours to the opening kickoff can now be counted. Full house at Michie Stadium is a certainty. There'll be interested – someone might say passionate – observers and listeners worldwide. And, oh yeah, it's Jeff Monken's first game as Army head coach.

Jitters? You'd never know it.

“I'm always excited about the new season,” said Monken, whose team will begin its 115th season Saturday against Buffalo. “I'm always excited about every game, I love to compete. It's fun to be out there and it's fun to be part of a team and to be in a sport where so many people rely on each other to do a job. “

Army seniors have only experienced victory eight times in their college careers, so anything new – a coach, a workout plan, sun rising in the west and setting in the east – can be perceived as something that might stop the bleeding. Of course, it's more than that.

“In so many sports, everybody has involvement with the ball, they get to throw it, or shoot it, or catch it, or hit it, but so many of the guys in our sport never get to touch the ball,” Monken said. “It's really a great team sport. When a team's able to go out and win, it's a great feeling because they've put so much effort into it. In a new season there's always hope for what the possibilities are and that's certainly the case for this season. We're excited. It's a great opportunity to be a part of this program and I'm looking forward to Saturday for sure."

With just eight months on the job, both Monken and his players are almost in the position of having to cram for a test. His contribution to recruiting a freshmen class was limited. He inherited some quality players, but having coaches change in the latter part of their college careers means that those with fully chalked blackboards need to erase all or most of it. That's a lot of writing.

And, as if rebuilding a program isn't trouble enough, Monken will be doing so – at least for the time being – with a starting quarterback he had already projected as the backup. Senior Angel Santiago started 11 of 12 games last season and the Black Knights' triple-option offense produced its customary pile of yardage – their 310 rushing yards per game was third in the nation. But as their passing offense only produced 77 yards per game – ranking 123rd – the hope was that surer-armed junior A.J. Schurr would give the offense far more versatility. But Schurr has missed the last three weeks of training with hamstring problems. When he will be ready to play remains among the team's top priorities.

A healthy Schurr combined with an experienced backfield of Terry Baggett, Larry Dixon and Raymond Maples, who is back as a fifth-year senior, could prove particularly worrisome for opponents who had become familiar with the Black Knights' run, run and run-some-more offense. Maples suffered a groin injury against Stanford in the third game last season; having played in less than 20 percent of the schedule, he was awarded a medical waiver to play a fifth season.

“We have a team that has been banged up; we've been in and out of the training room all summer,” Monken said. “Even up to this week we've got some guys that aren't up to full speed and we're anxious to get them back into the mix. We are not a deep football team in terms of each position having a guy or two that we feel comfortable with. There are some positions where there is really one guy and if a guy goes down, there's really quite a drop off. We will hopefully get everybody healthy and be prepared for Saturday and when that happens we will feel a lot more comfortable."

Can Monken turn Army into an immediate winner? The Black Knights finished a 3-9 season on a five-game losing streak last year. They've had only one winning season in the last 17. Other teams surely hold respect for the team's legacy, but assume they also look at it as a likely victory.

In contrast, there are those fans in 24 time zones, the overwhelming majority of whom don't have the opportunity to wear school sweatshirts or engage in rhythmic chants at halftime.

“The support here is tremendous,” Monken said. “What this program and this academy mean to so many people here in the United States and around the world and what this football team represents when it takes the field on Saturdays. It's a great feeling of responsibility that I have as the head coach and hopefully it's the responsibility that everyone in this program has to be playing for something bigger than themselves. It's great to know that that support is there and everyone has great hope for this season. The bottom line is it's going to be the guys on this team that are going to have the chance to put it together and have success and represent this academy and the United States Army."

The Black Knights begin that representation in two days, give or take an hour.