WEST POINT, New York — Even with one year under his belt at the school, Army West Point coach Jeff Monken isn't sure he's ahead of the game the second time around.
"I think we're ahead of where we were a year ago. How that will play out in the fall, I don't know," Monken said Tuesday.
"I told our team a bunch of times I don't know if we'll be as talented this year as we were a year ago," he said. "And I don't know that we were a particularly talented football team last year. We may be less talented, but we may be able to be a better football team, and I'm counting on us being a better football team."
The 48-year-old Monken was hired in December 2013 to turn around a program that's been mostly down for nearly two decades. He produced four wins in his first season, but the most important preseason goals were not accomplished.
Army (4-8) did not win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, emblematic of supremacy among the three service academies — Air Force beat both Army and Navy to win the prestigious hardware. The Black Knights also did not attain six wins to qualify for the Armed Forces Bowl and, worst of all, lost to Navy for the 13th straight time.
The Black Knights did finish fifth in the nation in rushing at 296.5 yards per game with its stout option attack and the discipline was sky-high. They had the sixth fewest penalties per game (4.08).
Still, there's a big leadership void to replace with the departures of 27 letter winners, including 10 offensive starters and six on defense. Lost to graduation are quarterback Angel Santiago and an imposing trio of running backs in Larry Dixon, Raymond Maples and Terry Baggett, three seniors on the defensive line, and both outside linebackers.
Spring practice concluded with the traditional Black-Gold scrimmage on Saturday and lots of new faces.
"When all of those seniors that had played so much walk out of the room, it's a different football team, and we're certainly a different football team now than we were in the fall," said Monken, who guided Army to victory over Buffalo in last fall's opener to become the first Army coach to win his first game at West Point since Bob Sutton in 1991. "We had an opportunity to see a lot of guys that hadn't played a lot be in a position where the responsibility is on their shoulders."
Monken said the team voted junior linebacker Jeremy Timpf and senior running back Matt Giachinta as team captains. Timpf emerged as a leader last year, finishing the season ranked seventh nationally in solo tackles per game (5.83 and 70 for the season) and 23rd in tackles per game (8.75 and 105 for the season). He also snared three interceptions.
Missing the entire spring was senior A.J. Schurr, the expected starter at quarterback. He's been nursing an injury to his right (throwing) shoulder suffered last November against Fordham. Sophomore Ahmad Bradshaw, who did not play in 2014, is listed behind Schurr on the depth chart.
"I think those other guys did a good job and really improved over the course of the spring," Monken said. "I think we'll have an interesting battle on our hands."
Just outside the door of Nowak Auditorium where Monken spoke sits a statue of the four architects of Army's glory days: Coach Earl "Red" Blaik; Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, the famed Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside of the national championship teams of the mid-1940s who each won the Heisman Trophy; and Pete Dawkins, the Heisman winner in 1958.
It's a legacy no one can ever hope to duplicate at the academy, but a legacy that will always serve as the goal.
"What an unbelievable era. That's our tradition and our history and what we all hope we can return this program to being — a nationally recognized national football program that's considered one of the great programs in the country," Monken said. "That's part of what drives us, the challenge.
"I'm confident we're going to succeed, I believe it's going to happen," he said. "There's no guarantee it will, but we're working really, really hard to make a change. The winds of change are blowing, but it doesn't happen overnight."
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