Photo: Andrew King dives through the line for a tackle against Navy.
You can tell Army recruited Andrew King as something other than a bruising middle linebacker by his jersey number. He still wears No. 11 as a 6-foot, 235-pounder.
That’s for quarterbacks or quick little running backs.
King was never a “little” running back, but his growth explains as much about his evolution from high school running back to college middle linebacker as any coaching wisdom in his one season at the USMA Prep School and two at West Point.
“A lot of it was just natural growth,” King said. “I was eating three meals a day, weight training and growing. I’ve just tried to do the best I can wherever they put me. I played defense in a high school all-star game, so I thought I might end up on defense in college.”
Army head coach Jeff Monken, who is running the Black Knights through spring drills in preparation for his second season in 2015, is the beneficiary of King’s physical maturity and position change. The spring game is April 18.
The Black Knights first pursued King under former coach Rich Ellerson as a 6-0, 200-pound running back from Queens out of Flushing High in New York. By the time he arrived at the Prep School in the fall of 2012, he was switched to defensive back. He weighed 205 then.
As a West Point freshman in 2013, Ellerson’s final season, King was up to 220 pounds. He played in only three games in a backup linebacker role while learning a new position; he finished with three tackles.
Everything changed in 2014, though, with another 15 pounds and a new coaching defensive formation. Some running backs are reluctant to give up the position and it affects their performance, but King has thrived in his new role.
“I like being able to control the defense,” he said. “I like being the quarterback of the defense. We (middle linebackers) play both aspects of the game. We have pass coverage responsibilities and we have to be physical in run defense.”
Army has been thin on defensive experience in recent seasons, but the Black Knights return four of their leading tacklers in 2015. King was third at 63 and weakside linebacker Jeremy Timpf, who also was a breakout sophomore starter last year, led the team with 117. Two cornerbacks return with Josh Jenkins as a junior and Chris Carnegie as a senior. Jenkins was second in tackles with 64 and Carnegie fourth with 54.
With King and Timpf returning, the Black Knights have two starters familiar with each other. Now they need to identify a third starter at strongside linebacker to replace graduated Steve Riccardi.
“Jeremy did a great for us,” King said. “I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us this year. We’re going to continue to get better. We should get better as we build on the bond we have and are more coordinated as a unit.”
King says his own game can improve all the way around now that he’s in his third year drilling as a linebacker and has starting experience.
“I felt confident physically last year,” King said. “But I feel more confident this year knowing the plays and my assignments. I know the depth to play on my assignments. I enjoy the opportunity to compete every day. I want to be a leader on this team. If I continue working as I have been, I can be a better player next year.”
Up until now, his rise at Army has been about physical growth. Now he’s adding the mental progression.
Army enters the 2015 season trying to end a four-year drought without a bowl game and a 13-year losing streak to Navy. It is the longest streak on either side in the 115 years of the rivalry and is now on its sixth Army coach trying to break the skid: Todd Berry, 2002; John Mumford, 2003; Bobby Ross, 2004-06; Stan Brock, 2007-08; Ellerson, 2009-13 and now Monken.
But instead of highlighting the negatives and anguish of breaking such an embarrassing streak, King keeps it matter-of-fact.
“We’re optimistic about next year,” he said. “We have 12 guaranteed games. If we play well enough, we’ll have a 13th game.”
--- 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.