There didn’t appear to be much room in the Army’s triple-option backfield for Tony Giovannelli or time left in the West Point career of the senior running back as the 2014 season approached.
The Black Knights featured two career 1,000-yard rushers with Raymond Maples and Terry Baggett returning at the slotbacks. Fullback Larry Dixon was held under 1,000 yards last year by injuries more than tacklers. He’s validating that observation with a team-leading 683 yards this season that has him on pace for 1,000 yards.
But Giovannelli didn’t look around and see crowded backfield. He viewed his productive teammates as friends who helped him become a better football player throughout his West Point career. Whatever time he had left was more time on the field he would have seen without Army’s brotherhood.
“The reason I’ve been able to play this year is those guys have been helping me for four years I’ve been here,” said Giovanelli. “I have to give them a lot of credit for how I’ve been able to help the team.”
Giovannell’s contributions in 2014 have been catching the ball out of the backfield in a triple-option scheme new head coach Jeff Monken and offensive coordinator Brent Davis brought with them from a highly successful tour at Georgia Southern.
The 6-foot-1, 201-pounder from Chatham (Ill.) Glenwood is only fifth in rushing with 26 carries for 191 yards and two touchdowns, although he’s averaging 7.3 yards on his limited carries with a long of 37.
“Our coaches have done a good job of getting everyone in the rotation, and I’m happy to be part of the group,” he said. “We’re a pretty tight with each other. We help each other out as much as we can. We’re just happy to see each other contribute to the team.
“The guys have helped me learn plays with the old coaching staff and this summer Terry and I worked together a lot on the new coaching staff’s offense. We worked on running back stuff and blocking.”
But he’s second in receiving in the ground-oriented offense with seven catches for 104 yards, an average of 14.9 per catch and run, with a long of 26. That’s been the primary difference with former head coach Rich Ellerson’s triple-option.
“The offensive is similar but very different,” Giovannelli said. “Coach Davis wants to be able to expand the field when we need to. He’s developing a range of plays inside and outside that we can do. He’s done a really job of integrating every aspect of football into this offense.
Giovannelli could see as early as spring ball there might be more opportunities for him as a senior catching the ball, but he didn’t put up an “about time” attitude. He kept working with his only expectations contributions here and there.
“I saw it coming as a learned more about the offense and was excited we might be throwing the ball more,” he said. “But I’m willing to do whatever they need me to do.”
It’s been a long ride for Giovannelli from not playing on the varsity in 2011, making the varsity but not seeing playing time in 2012 to breaking into the lineup in 2013 largely as a result of the season-ending injury to Maples in the third game.
He finished 2013 with three starts and 30 carries for 223 yards, an average of 7.3 yards per carry. His long run was a 68-yarder. He only caught two passes for 29 yards, but Monken and Davis saw his receiving ability in the spring.
Now he’s in the final stretch with only five games remaining and Army struggling with a 2-5 record. The Black Knights need four wins for bowl eligibility, but they also have their two Commander-in-Chief games ahead of them.
Air Force (5-2), bouncing back from a 2-10 season a year ago that included a win over Army at Colorado Springs, plays at Army at 11:30 am ET Saturday at Michie Stadium.
“We’ve had some close ones get away from us over the years,” Giovannelli said. “We wish we could get a few of them back, but we can’t. Our group of seniors want to make the most of these last games and play our hearts out for each other.”
Seniors are sometimes the group that suffers the most when a new coaching staff comes in with a different X’s and O’s and their own ideas on how players fit their schemes. But Giovannelli says that’s not the case with the Black Knights.”
“Were excited with the job these coaches have done,” Giovannell said. “The seniors are excited and still optimistic.”