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Army Black Knights 2021 Season Preview

Reporting by Erin Summers

edited for web by Joe Harman

If the Army football 2020 season was all about perseverance, the 2021 season may be all about seizing the moment with an experienced Black Knight squad.


This year, Army is poised for another big season as the Black Knights return 13 starters from a 2020 team that went 9 -- 3, won the Commander In Chief's Trophy and went to their 4th bowl game in five years.


"It's toughness and it's effort and it's the fundamentals and it's attention to detail that make us the team we are," eighth-year Head Coach Jeff Monken says about his team.


The #1 overall defense in the FBS in 2020 returns with six of the top 8 tacklers -- four of whom were named captains for 2021: defensive lineman Nolan Cockrill, defensive backs Cedrick Cunningham and Marquel Broughton and linebacker Arik Smith.


"I don't know that any one of those linebackers we have had is better than Arik Smith," Coach Monken says about his star player from Bowie, MD. "He is just a tremendous football player." After sharing the top of the tackling stat charts with last season's leading linebacker -- and now NFL prospect -- Jon Rhattigan, look for Smith to lead the defensive charge in 2021.

Defensive senior LB and team captain, Arik Smith is poised to lead a dominant Army defense in 2021

Offensively, the Black Knights have to replace four starters on their offensive line. Center Connor Bishop is the sole returnee and has juggled six different signal callers. "Definitely an emphasis we've been having is standardizing through all center and quarterback exchanges, specifically with the snap," relates Bishop, a junior out of Holland, PA.


The QB battle will likely come down to senior Christian Anderson -- who started five games last season before being sidelined by injury -- and junior Tyhier Tyler, who led the team in 2020 with 578 rushing yards.


"The quarterback needs to be a guy that everybody in the program is confident in," Coach Jeff Monken notes on how important the quarterback decision will be.


Experience in the backfield will also be key in 2021. The Black Knights return their top five rushers from a triple option attack that led the nation in total rushing yards, with 4,710 in the year.


Cade Bernard, Army's senior RB from Seminole, TX, says the emphasis in the backfield is not with individual stats, "I don't think a single one of us cares about carries. I don't think we care about snaps played. It's all about being together as that B-back brotherhood and winning the game."


That brotherhood will kick off its first game September 4th at Georgia State.


But of course, our reconnaissance doesn't stop there. We recently had a chance to talk to Sal Interdonato of BlackKnightNation.com to hear what he thinks the 2021 season will look like for the Black Knights. We start our conversation with a look back at 2020:


Sal Interdonato: It was pretty amazing, I think that back-to-back wins over Navy and Air Force is certainly a stand-out. When you can do that in consecutive weeks, beat your rivals, and do it in the fashion that they did it, with shutting out Navy and then a dramatic win over Air Force and then being able to win the CIC Trophy at Michie Stadium is something probably that will never happen -- well, I won't say never happen again -- but it's pretty rare because usually that is decided in Army-Navy Week most of the time. So it was a really good season.

I was thinking about this the other day that that the 2020 season is a real help for Army for 2021 because a lot of guys got a chance to take the field because of COVID procedures or protocols, or whatever you want to say. And I look at what they bring back on defense and how many different guys have starting experience.


Erin Summers: Let's start with the defense first. You mentioned a lot of returnees on that side of the ball, top five in four different categories last season. In defense alone, when you look at that group, what are some of your areas of concern?


Sal: Well, the only area of concern . . . the defensive line. They say, OK, well, you lost Amadeo West, so maybe there's some leadership that you might have lost there. But then Nolan Cockrill is coming back at nose tackle. He's a guy that was voted captain, he's a guy that works his tail off in the weight room. He's a leader on and off the field. I don't think there's going to be much of a problem.

You look at who's going to replace Jon Rhattigan, right? Who's going to replace the production of Jon Rhattigan. Well, Jon Rhattigan couldn't play in the bowl game because of COVID protocols, and Spencer Jones -- who's going to be a sophomore -- started in that game. He was a factor in that game. He's a guy who I know has hit the weight room pretty good.

You look at, you have four captains on the team. They're all defensive guys, you know. That says a lot in what you're bringing back.

And when you can bring out the secondary that they're going to have with Jabari Moore, Julian McDuffie at Corners and Marquel Broughton and Cedrick Cunningham at safeties. That might be the best Army secondary, this 2021 team's secondary might be the best I've seen in a while with the experience in the talent that they have coming back.


Erin: You mentioned Jon Rhattigan, his production, Spencer Jones stepping into that slot, maybe one of those captains, linebacker Arik Smith, I know Coach Monken has talked very highly of him and his abilities. What do you expect from him in 2021?


Sal: I saw somebody post on Twitter "Who is one of the more underrated players in the country," and I think Arik Smith is right up there. He's going to be a three year starter. They call him a hammerhead. He's a heavy hitter. He's a smart player, very cerebral player. When you interview Arik Smith, you can tell he's always deep in thought, right? He's always thinking about what he's going to say. That's the way he kind of plays on the field too.


Erin: To the offensive side of the ball . . .we've talked about the quarterbacks a little bit here. Last year, six different players getting time, four different starters. I know a lot of injuries played a factor last year, with Christian Anderson getting the starting nod to begin the season before he was injured. How do you think this one is going to shake out?


Sal: The coaches will say, "Well, we don't even know right now."

Tyheir Tyler, they love Tyheir Tyler's leadership and Tyheir Tyler's toughness. And Tyheir Tyler has got something special in him. He makes plays happen. And I think that you can say that about Christian Anderson. You can say that about Jemel Jones. And you can say Cade Ballard might be the guy who runs the option the best. The guy's never lost a game he's started in his high school or college career, so . . .


Will senior QB Christian Anderson get tapped to start the 2021 season as the Black Knight's signal caller?

And then if you want to throw Jabari Laws into the mix . . . we don't really know. They kind of were easy with Jabari Laws in the spring. He's throwing the ball a little bit, get maybe getting some reps under center. But there's a guy who started a couple of years ago, a guy who started in the Air Force game and almost, probably, would have led Army to win over Air Force if he didn't get injured at the end of that game. So when Jabari Laws is healthy and ready to go . . . he's also something special.


Erin: So looking at the overall 2021 schedule, with what you have seen from them so far this spring, what are your predictions for this team?


Sal: It's an interesting schedule and it's going to--should be--an interesting season because they're going to be challenged, especially on the road. When you have to go to Wisconsin and you have to go to Liberty in November . . . Liberty was a very good team at the end of last season, and they bring back their quarterback and they bring back a lot of pieces. Wisconsin is probably the most talented team that Army will play, but Liberty is right there.

It's not going to be easy. This is going to be a challenging schedule. But with the team that they have, Erin, they're in a spot where they won nine games last year. They bring back a ton of returning talent. They might not talk about expectations, but we'll talk about expectations.

They're a mentally tough team from everything that they went through. And I think that, this year, I think you're going to see them go up to Wisconsin and pull out that game.

You look at the schedule and you're like, you're ready for the season to start already.

We're looking forward to it, too, Sal. Thanks!