New-look offense in store for Army Black Knights in 2023
Stars and Stripes August 17, 2023
After failing to secure bowl eligibility for the second time since 2015 last season, the Army Black Knights are gearing up for the 2023 campaign with their priorities clearly laid out.
Among them, as 10th-year head coach Jeff Monken and players made clear after opening fall camp, are a new offensive scheme, a greater emphasis on run defense and sustained special teams success.
Gone are the days of the triple option, a physical and grueling method of moving the ball downfield. NCAA rules, which took effect before the beginning of the 2022 season, prohibit blocking below the waist on the perimeter and more than 1 yard beyond the line of scrimmage, forcing Monken and co. to reevaluate the practicality of the decades-old scheme.
The triple option offense was great and helped the Black Knights win a lot of football games, Monken said, but it also was complex. Shifting to a spread will simplify the learning process for newcomers, and the returning players have had little trouble adapting.
“We still want to be a tough, hard-nosed football team that runs the football and stops the run.”
— Army coach Jeff Monken
“We still want to be a tough, hard-nosed football team that runs the football and stops the run,” Monken said. “We want to be an offense that can control the clock and limit the possessions of the other team. Those philosophies are all still there. We’re just going to be structured a little differently, presented a little differently.”
The chief architect of the new-look Army offense is Drew Thatcher, who spent the past four seasons at Division II Nebraska-Kearney as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. In each of the past two seasons, the Lopers averaged at least 33 points and 400 yards per game.
Thatcher replaced Brent Davis, who had been the Black Knights’ offensive coordinator since 2014, when Monken arrived. Army averaged about 28.6 points and 366.1 yards per game last season, the third- and second-worst figures of the past seven years.
One of the biggest areas of improvement Thatcher said he wants to see is the ability to adapt on the fly.
“We’ve still got to run the ball, but you’ve got to be able to have a little better balance,” Thatcher said. “When really good teams can take away one part of your game, you’ve got to be able to have an answer, whether it’s by a really good player that does that or by a scheme and loading the box.”
Jakobi Buchanan, who has scored 18 times in the past two seasons; Tyson Riley, whose 443 rushing yards in 2022 lead all returners; and Tyrell Robinson, who has averaged 8 yards per carry during his three-year career, all promise to keep the rushing attack alive and well.
A strong running game and the ability to make in-game adjustments both start with the offensive line. Senior Connor Finucane said the offensive line is moving better than it ever has, even with 10 returning offensive linemen checking in at or above 300 pounds for the first time in Army history.
“It’s like a more forgiving golf club,” Finucane said. “You can make a little more error, and you can still get away with some stuff.”
Finucane, one of four team captains, also touted the experience of his unit, which includes six players who racked up a total of 44 starts in 2022.
“I think experience is going to be helpful, regardless of what offense we’ve played in,” Finucane said. “That experience of knowing how to attack a game week, knowing how to lead younger guys, knowing how to come together to accomplish a win in a game is certainly applicable to now.”
Experience is not as plentiful under center, where competition for the starting quarterback role appears to be wide open during the early part of fall camp. Monken said junior Bryson Daily took first-team reps in the first practice, but sophomore Dewayne Coleman also is in the mix for the job, along with the injured Zach Mundell.
Senior Alex Meredith was going to be in contention for the job, but he suffered a season-ending injury during practice this week.
Daily is the only one of the four to log action during their Army careers, and he has thrown a grand total of one pass, which fell incomplete. In five games last season, he ran the ball 12 times for 163 yards and two touchdowns.
“Quarterbacks need real live game reps executing the system to feel confident,” Thatcher said.
Whoever becomes the primary signal caller will have the two leading receivers from 2022 again this season. Isaiah Alston and Ay’Jaun Marshall combined to account for more than half of the Black Knights’ 42 receptions, 920 yards and five scores last year.
“There’s a myriad of guys that are going to take this team to success, just doubling down on the values of our team that are present regardless of what formation or what play we run,” Finucane said.
On defense, the other three Army captains emphasized stopping the run, something the Black Knights struggled with last season. They allowed 199 rushing yards per game, a huge increase from marks under 118 during the first two years under defensive coordinator Nate Woody.
Senior linebackers Leo Lowin and Jimmy Ciarlo expressed confidence in their position group, and senior Austin Hill said the defensive linemen are the strongest, biggest and fastest the Black Knights have had during his career.
“Statistically, we probably didn’t perform the way we wanted to last year,” Lowin said. “There’s going to be a couple new faces, but for the most part, we know this defense. We’ve just got to execute better.”
While position battles intensify and schemes are implemented on offense and defense, Monken made sure not to overlook the importance of special teams. Last season, Army registered the second-most special teams touchdowns in the Football Bowl Subdivision with three, including a punt return and two blocked punts — one of which came in the dying minutes of the first half against Navy.
“That’s been a big part of our success here, and we’ve got a really good culture surrounding special teams,” Monken said.
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