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College Football Preview 2019: 20. Army Black Knights

20. Army Black Knights

A dark horse New Year's Six Bowl possibility, Army will roll through an extremely soft schedule

Kelvin Hopkins Jr.
Offense: A 70-14 beatdown of Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl was the culmination of a very successful Army offense in 2018. They'll return the engineer of the offense, QB Kelvin Hopkins Jr., as well as a number of supporting pieces that should ensure this group keeps on humming.

Hopkins was a pleasant surprise for head coach Jeff Monken and his staff, becoming the first player in Army history to finish with 1,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards. He showed solid arm talent but of course, his real strength is his mobility. Hopkins is exceptionally quick for a quarterback and is masterful with the pitch. Don't be surprised if he puts together a monster senior season.

Reliable backs Andy Davidson and Darnell Woolfolk depart from a powerful triple-option attack, but the Black Knights have options ready to step up. Senior Connor Slomka is almost sure to see big-time usage as the No. 1 FB, a year removed from gaining 324 yards and five scores. The real playmaker in the backfield, however, will be senior Kell Walker. Walker is an intelligent, skilled rusher who can make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. Walker recorded 490 total yards from scrimmage a season ago, averaging 15.5 yards per catch.

Receivers certainly play a different role in this Army offense as primarily blockers versus pass-catchers. It is an interesting position, but the Black Knights have a number of guys who do it well. Junior Cam Harrison has the talent to do bigger things, totaling 129 yards and one touchdown on just four catches. Seniors Glen Coates and Kjetil Cline add reliable veterans on the outside who can do some things down the field. The tight end spot is up for grabs at the end of spring, although junior Jake Lauer seems primed to see starting snaps.

Army's offensive line does a whole lot of work in this ground-and-pound offense, so bringing back three starters is a win. Senior guard Jaxson Deaton can be used to open up massive running lanes, as can fellow guard Peyton Reeder. Junior right tackle J.B. Hunter is also returning on the outside. This group has fabulous athleticism and solid experience. If they can patch up a few spots, the front has a chance to be really, really good.

Army doesn't play a pretty brand of football, but their triple-option attack has proven itself as incredibly tricky to stop. The Black Knights averaged 312.5 yards per game on the ground in '18, numbers which could be much the same this fall with Hopkins still in charge. Replicating 32.8 points per game could also be possible, but that may require better play from the O-Line in short yardage situations.

Defense: While their offense is unique and interesting, their defense plays a pretty simplistic scheme that is highly effective. Army is incredibly physical and stingy, and they're disciplined to get to their spots and fill. They allowed just 17.7 PPG in '18, which was tenth in the entire nation.

Retooling the D-Line has to be priority No. 1 for Monken and the defensive staff into fall camp and the regular season. Veteran Jacob Covington has played well as a reserve and fits in nicely at the nose tackle position, but there is just not much pass rushers proven right now. Junior end Edriece Patterson has the upside to do some real damage, bringing the QB down twice in very limited action this past fall.

Alex Aukerman and James Nachtigal were the guiding forces behind much of the Army defense last season, but both are now gone. That puts more pressure on returnee Cole Christiansen, but the Knights have done a good job reloading at this position in the past. Christiansen was second on the team in tackles last fall, with 77, while proving he could wreck chaos in opposing backfields (12 tackles for loss). Neither outside linebacker spot has a proven starter right now, but there remains loads of potential. Senior Donovan Lynch has moved around a little bit in his college career, but could go out with a bang.

The Knights had the 21st best pass defense in America in 2018, and now bring back three starters in the secondary. That will allow this team a little bit of flexibility and time for the front seven to learn things on the fly. Senior Elijah Riley has cemented his role as this team's top cover corner, and he has the talent to earn national recognition in 2019. Riley got his hands on 10 passes in '18, while being a factor in run support. Junior Jahvhari Bordeau is important opposite of Riley, as quarterbacks learned they wouldn't get it easy going at him last year. The cornerback position also boasts fabulous depth top to bottom.

Jaylon McClinton is perhaps the defense's top playmaker, and may be one of the most underrated defensive backs in the country. McClinton stuffed the stat sheet with 54 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 interceptions and 6 pass deflections. He plays a downhill, hard-hitting brand of football that really gives this defense a lot of energy. Senior Ryan Velez is expected to ascend into a starting role, where he'll have to learn quickly.

Even though Army doesn't recruit the athletes other elite defenses have, they still have one of the best units around. Losing a ton on the front seven will be a difficult task, but Christiansen, along with a loaded secondary, will ensure success. This defense will also have the benefit of going up against a bunch of mediocre offenses this fall.

Special Teams: Army is searching for a new placekicker and punter, battles that could linger into fall. Landon Salyers went 1-4 on field goals a year ago but is now the expected starter with John Abercrombie graduated. The return game was very bad last season but has a chance to get a lot better, with Kell Walker ready to open things up.

Bottom Line: That 70-14 pounding of Houston was the finishing touches of a magical Army 2018, where they went 11-2 and once again beat Navy. Just as impressive was the fact they could hang with the big boys, challenging eventual Playoff participant Oklahoma to OT in a 28-21 loss. It is never easy to completely replicate such a successful season, but the Black Knights are dangerous entering 2019. They have speed and versatility on offense, as well as legit All-American talent in places on defense. Just as encouraging is a schedule that could be among the easiest in the entire FBS. Outside of a road trip to Ann Arbor to challenge Michigan, Army will likely be favored in every single game. Their road games are incredibly manageable beyond UM (UTSA, Western Kentucky, Georgia State, Air Force, Hawaii) and their arch-rival, Navy, is still rebuilding. This is a golden time for Army football and it isn't unreasonable to think they could crash the New Year's Six party come winter. At the very least, their meeting with the Wolverines should show the world how strong the football program has become up at West Point.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 11-2
Offensive MVP: QB Kelvin Hopkins Jr.
Defensive MVP: S Jaylon McClinton
Breakout Player of the Year: FB Connor Slomka
Impact Freshman: TE Simon Dellinger

Five-Year Trend
2014: 4-8
2015: 2-10
2016: 8-5
2017: 10-3
2018: 11-2

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