Photo: Kell Walker
Army running back Kell Walker and his junior classmates open the 2018 football season having never lost to Navy. That sentence is worth reading again.
Understand that for a decade-plus classes of Army players went through West Point without beating Navy -- not once. The Black Knights lost 14 straight to Navy from 2002 to 2015, the longest streak by either side in the 118-game series.
Army also went 21 years without winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy until winning at Air Force in November before defeating Navy. Walker’s class felt clouds hanging over Army football when they arrived at West Point, but not since then. They're coming off a 10-3 and 8-5 seasons that include two bowl victories.
“It’s a lot different now,” he aid following Friday night’s Black and Gold spring game the Black won 21-7. “Everybody has confidence is us. The corps (student body) loves the wins. Sometime you hear the corps isn’t behind us. They’re absolutely behind us. They’re pushing us and making us work harder.”
The turnaround began with fifth-year head coach Jeff Monken’s arrival. His Black Knights nearly pulled off stunning upsets in his first two games, losing 17-10 and 21-17, before winning the last two 21-17 and 14-13.
The 2018 season, that opens Sept. 1 at Duke, marks the first roster all of Army’s players – including the seniors that attended the Army prep school before admission to West Point – are from Monken’s recruiting classes.
Walker, a 5-foot-9, 195-pounder from Decatur, Ga., has already contributed plenty as a member of Monken’s third class. That includes his year at the Army prep school (essentially a redshirt season compared to civilian college program).
“When we beat Navy in prep school, we made a vow never to lose to Navy,” Walker said. “The guys that are seniors, made a pact after they lost their first game never to lose again. We know Navy has a great program, but everybody has the mentality not to lose to them again. We keep pushing harder to get better.”
As a freshman, Walker finished with only 58 carries for 378 yards and two touchdowns, but he closed the season strongly. In the win over Navy, he ran 16 times for 94 yards.
As a sophomore, he finished with 86 carries for 629 yards and six touchdowns. He had a long of 47 and an average of 7.3 per carry. In the Navy victory, his carries were limited to five for 39 yards, but one was game-changing. His fourth-and-one gain outside for two yards to the three set up Darnell Woolfolk’s touchdown the next play.
Another area Walker expanded his game as a sophomore was catching five passes for 111 yards with a long of 42. That, of course, is a limited total – even for a triple option offense – but it was one-quarter of Army’s 20 completed passes for the season. It was a year Army didn’t need to throw the ball much while leading the nation in rushing at 362.3 yards a game. Ahmad Bradshaw, the senior quarterback, finished with 1,746.
“I definitely see areas where I’ve got to get better,” Walker said. “I’m not settling for having an OK season my first two years. I’m working to elevate my game. The whole team is working to elevate our games. I’m not settling for last year or my freshman year. I’m working hard in the off-season.”
But Walker’s expanded role might include catching more passes. He took some snaps at quarterback in the spring game.
With Bradshaw graduating, backup Kelvin Hopkins Jr. and Cam Thomas started for the Black and Gold squads. Hopkins is a junior that was Bradshaw’s backup and Thomas is a sophomore. Senior Luke Langdon and sophomore Christian Anderson also got looks.
Is Monken planning to take a page from Navy?
Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo recruited Malcolm Perry as a running back, but he has been switching back and forth between slotback and quarterback. Perry ran for 250 yards and a touchdown to nearly beat Army.
Monken isn’t expected to name a starter until fall camp, Walker made it sound like an experiment after the game, but Army, Navy and Air Force are all finding ways to expand their running games outside the basic triple-option formation.
“I’m not sure whatever the coaches want me to do, but I’ll do it to the best of my ability,” he said. “I’ll contribute running the ball, catching the ball out of the slot playing special teams, and I’ll continue to work hard at quarterback.”
Army returns its entire backfield, and sophomore Fred Cooper may be ready to join the mix. He had impressive spring camp that included a 35-yard touchdown run in the spring game.
Army will have a new quarterback next year, but whether it’s Walker or one of last year’s backups, beating Navy is no longer a novel concept at West Point.
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