WEST POINT -- Size. Strength. Fundamentals. Acclimation to an entirely new coaching staff and the new system put in place by a new head coach. With spring practice having ended, this is just the short list of speed bumps facing Army football as stage one of its pre-season prep has ended. Stage two will consist of just a few hours of film review and meetings in the next few weeks. Stage three, of course, will be the beginning of fall practice in August. So much to do. So little time to know if it will take.
“We’ve come a long way,” head coach Jeff Monken said. “I think our guys put in a great effort during the spring and worked hard. They tried to do all of the things we asked them to do. If they continue to put forth that type of effort, I think we’ll have a chance to improve when we get back here in August and get ready for the opening game. We’ve got a lot of work to do over the summer. We have to get these guys prepared physically. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to get out there and work with those guys again. We’ll look at the things we didn’t quite master this spring and get ready to see what we’ve got for the season.”
Strangely, it’s the progress of special teams that represents Monken’s greatest concern.
“Special teams is something I’m very heavy-handed in and after watching the film from Saturday, it’s a poor job on my part for not getting those guys prepared,” he said.
Saturday represented the last day of spring practice with Army’s annual intrasquad Black vs. Gold game. Gold won 20-14. The only offensive player that really distinguished himself was Gold freshman quarterback Matt Kaufmann, who completed 13 of 17 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown. Black quarterback A.J. Schurr, who will be competing with Angel Santiago for the starting job, completed 9 of 18 for 137 yards. The Gold roster consisted of the first-team defense and second-string offense; the Black was second-team defense and first-string offense.
“The competition level came up,” fullback Larry Dixon said. “It’s just fun to be around these guys. I’m realizing as a senior how special it is to be a part of this team, represent this school and play with these guys. These guys are my brothers. We’ve done things that people won’t even understand. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to come out here at 4:30 in the morning. We worked together through that, and to have it culminate in this kind of competition was awesome.”
Monken surely appreciates the enthusiasm. But just because your adrenalin is coming through your ears doesn’t necessarily translate to success.
“I don’t know that they understand the system yet,” he said. “A lot of them know their job right now, but in terms of how that fits into the grand scheme, I don’t know that we’ve got a great handle on that yet, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams. I watched the special teams practice on Saturday and we had countless mistakes, missing assignments and blocking the wrong guy. We had some guys playing some different positions because we split the team, but I hoped we would have a little better handle on understanding the grand scheme of what we’re trying to accomplish.
“I think our team came together and played together better than they would have at the onset in January. We were going through the workouts and naturally, they’re just trying to find their way into the depth chart to get a chance to compete. Our guys did a good job of holding each other accountable and setting some expectations for themselves and for each other. But we’ve got a long way to go. I’m not ready to anoint any part of our team where we’ve got a strength. We need improvements in every area, including coaching.”
Summertime extends the chance for training, but unlike the vast majority of schools that training isn’t always with a football.
"The unique experience here at the academy is that our guys don’t just take summer school classes and work out,” Monken said. “They are also obligated to go through summer [military] training. Most of those guys will be able to do that summer training early in the summer and can come back and take summer school classes and work out here with our strength staff. The nature of the United States Military Academy allows us to be able to keep pretty good tabs on each one of those guys. To be able to monitor those guys on what they’re eating and how much rest they’re getting will be beneficial. We want our guys to have the best opportunity to succeed once they get back here in the fall. We’ll be working with them during the permissible weeks in the summer.”
Safety Geoffrey Bacon said of his winning Gold team, “It means we did some of the things we wanted to, but not all of them. Our goal was to shut them out, and we didn’t do that. That means we all have a lot of work to do. We all did a good job, but we have so much more to do to get to the point of greatness. We feel that we can. It’s going to take more time and work, but, thankfully, we have time.”
One player who didn’t participate in Saturday’s game was halfback Raymond Maples. Maples missed most of last season with a groin injury, but having competed in 20 percent or fewer of Army’s games Maples qualified for a medical-hardship waiver. He’s already received his post-grad branch of military service – Air Defense Artillery – but has nevertheless opted to return as a fifth-year senior.
Entering the 2013 season, Maples had the chance to become just the second player in Army history – Mike Mayweather was the other -- to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season three times in his career. He will enter the 2014 season sixth on the service academy’s career rushing list with 2,612 yards.
In Maples’ absence last year, Terry Baggett filled in beautifully, rushing for 1,134 yards, including an Army single-game record 304 yards against Eastern Michigan. He, too, missed the Black-Gold game with an injury.
“I don’t know if I went into the spring with expectations about what we’d have at any position,” Monken said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t have guys like Terry Baggett and Raymond Maples who have played quite a bit, but weren’t able to practice because of injuries. There are several guys who had the red jersey on all spring, and it would have been nice to evaluate those guys.”
Monken has named Dixon and Bacon team captains.
“I’m excited for those guys. I think both of them have displayed the kind of leadership it takes to earn the respect of their teammates and be voted team captains,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll do a great job leading our team, along with the two guys we voted on our leadership council who are going to take a leadership role as well. I think it speaks to the respect their teammates have for them.”