Photo: Matt Hugenberg anchors Army's offensive line.
Matt Hugenberg, Army's senior returning starting center, provides an interesting contrast of how far the Black Knights have progressed at the critical need of improving their size on the offensive line.
“I think I’m the only one they told to lose weight,” said Hugenberg, listed as a 6-foot-5, 309-pounder in 2014 as a junior. “They wanted me to get down about 10 pounds from last year, and I feel great.”
“I feel I can move around better and I’m not getting as tired as I was,” he said. “I’m the only one on the offensive line required to lose weight. Everybody else put on 10 or 15 pounds since this time last year.”
Movement among offensive linemen remains important in Army’s triple-option offense, but one reason for Army’s 13-game losing streak to Navy, 16 of 18 losses to Air Force and four straight seasons without a bowl game has been the mismatches up front. The Black Knights have been giving away too much weight on both sides of the ball.
But efforts by former head coach Rich Ellerson in his final couple seasons and now second-year head coach Jeff Monken with his second recruiting class appear to be making a difference for 2015 and beyond.
At left guard, Jaryn Villegas started as a 6-2, 294-pounder and Trey Ratliff was his backup at 6-5, 263. Both players return as sophomores in 2015.
At right guard, Bryce Holland started at 6-2, 265 and Lofi Tamasese was his backup at 6-1, 304. Holland returns as a sophomore and Tamasese a junior.
At right tackle, Drew Hennessy was the starter at 6-7, 283 and his backup was Mike Houghton at 6-4, 257. Hennessy returns as a senior and Houghton is back as a sophomore.
The returning left tackles are seniors Corey Hobbs (6-0, 240) and Ryan Alexander (6-1, 250), but as a whole the Black Knights are now on par with the offensive lines at Navy and Air Force. Navy’s nose guards on last year’s depth chart were featured bulk with two 300-pounders and a 280-pounder.
“The size helps a lot, especially at trying to face 300-pound nose guards,” Hugenberg said. “But I think we still have good movement. We’re farther along than we were this time last year. It’s progress, but we’re still on a long journey.”
For Hugenberg, recruited out of Quincy (Ill.) Notre Dame as a Rivals 2-star and 295-pounder, the difference between his backup role and emerging as a starter last year has been experience. He spent a year at the USMA Prep School in 2011, played in two games as a freshman in 2012 and played in all 12 as backup his sophomore season in 2013.
“I think a lot of reps in practice and then getting game experience (in 2013) is what elevated my game,” he said.
He thinks with the confidence of playing time benefiting him, he wants to take another step in 2015.
“The biggest thing I’m doing this year is to have the mindset to get better every day and help my teammates get better,” he said. ?That’s the biggest thing I’m focused now.”
Offensive lines always benefit from time spent together and Army is positioned well for such a cohesiveness with five returning starters.
“I think playing together the best thing you can do,” Hugenberg said. “You know the tendencies of the guy next you. Once you’ve done it so many times you know their style of play and you know where they’re going to be before they get there.”
Hugenberg added improved size on the defensive line also helps the Black Knights in practice.
“We have to physical defense and some days it’s an uphill battle against our defensive line,” he said. “I think everybody is working hard in practice. We have confidence in Coach Monken and his staff in what they’re teaching us. We’re concentrating and doing what they ask in practice.”
--- Tom Shanahan has featured Army, Navy and Air Force athletes for nearly 30 years in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rivals.com and the Raleigh News and Observer. He attended his first Army-Navy Game after John Feinstein wrote in his book on the rivalry, “A Civil War,” everyone should attend the Army-Navy Game at least once.