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Preview: Army looks for an encore performance in 2019

(Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)

Coming off its strongest season since 1996 when the Bob Sutton-coached Black Knights went 10-2, Army (11-2) looks to repeat last year’s phenomenal season which culminated in a No. 22 national ranking and a 70-14 thrashing of Houston in the Lockheed Martin-sponsored Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth.

The eleven victories were the most in program history.

Army’s only two losses last year were at Duke in the season opener and a heartbreaking 28-21 overtime setback three weeks later to the fifth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in Norman.

Arguably the best third down team in the country — the Black Knights ranked first in the FBS in that category in both offense and defense last year — the oldest military academy in the country enters the 2019 campaign on a nine-game winning streak, the second-longest winning streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision. 

Defending national champion Clemson, which has won fifteen straight games, is the only team with more consecutive wins entering the 2019 season while Appalachian State and Ohio State both enter the 2019 season on six-game winning streaks.

Sixth-year head coach Jeff Monken, who has guided West Point to 29 victories over the past three seasons, has seven returning starters on offense, including sensational dual-threat senior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins, Jr., who became the first player in program history to run and pass for more than 1,000 yards in a single season in 2018, rushing for an impressive 1,017 yards and 17 touchdowns — the most of any quarterback in the country while tying the Army record shared by tailback Carlton Jones and quarterback Trent Steelman — and passing for another 1,026 yards and a half-dozen scores.

Hopkins scored five rushing touchdowns in Army’s bowl blowout win against Houston last year.

Despite some key losses on the offensive line, look for the 5-10, 205-pound junior from Charlotte to excel in Monken’s triple-option offense again this season.

Physical short-yardage fullback Connor Slomka, a bruising 240-pound junior from Wexford, Pennsylvania, who rushed for 324 yards on 74 carries and scored five touchdowns a year ago, and senior slot-back Kell Walker, a big-play threat who picked up 320 yards, including a 51-yard run, on 67 carries in 2018, are also expected to play major roles in Army’s offensive game this year. 

Matching last year’s 312.5 yards on the ground per game, however, could be difficult, especially with the loss of Darnell Woolfolk and Andy Davison, both of whom have graduated.

Look for Army to again take care of the ball while controlling the clock.  Remarkably, the Black Knights only turned the ball over eight times — three interceptions and five fumbles — on 922 snaps last year.  It was the second best turnover ratio in the FBS.

With the loss of seven starters on defense, Army — one of the most effective blitzing teams in the country — probably won’t be quite as good defensively as it was last season when the Black Knights allowed a paltry 17.7 points per game and ranked among the nation’s best in several categories, including yards allowed per game (295.5), scoring defense, and forced fumbles.

The drop-off, however, shouldn’t be too severe as longtime assistant John Loose, who replaces Jay Bateman who left for North Carolina, as the new defensive coordinator, will still have plenty of defensive weapons at his disposal, not the least of whom includes middle linebacker Cole Christiansen, a 6-2, 225-pound senior returning team captain who led the team with a dozen tackles for loss a year ago, and a solid secondary led by corner Elijah Riley, who broke up ten passes and had 7.5 tackles for loss in 2018. 

Senior Jaylon McClinton, a defensive back who registered a career-high nine tackles against arch-rival Navy last year, is also once again expected to play a huge role in Army’s defensive scheme.  McClinton picked off a pair of passes and made 54 tackles last season, including 37 solo tackles.

Army isn’t expected to have any difficulty in its season opener on Friday against Rice, a team that struggled to win two games last season, but will encounter its first big test — and a daunting one at that — when it travels to Ann Arbor to take on the highly-ranked Michigan Wolverines on Sept. 7th.

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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