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May 31, 2006

A Look Ahead: Army vs. Arkansas State

Each week throughout the summer, GoBlackKnights.com will present an analysis of Army's opponents on its 2006 schedule. This week, we will start by previewing the opening day match-up against against Arkansas State in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Next week we will look at Army's home opener against Kent State.

As Army continues its climb back to college football prominence, the average Black Knights' fan would look to this year's opener at Arkansas State as an excellent opportunity to start 1-0 for the first time since 1996. Army's 38-10 decisive win over Arkansas State last season was its greatest margin of victory over a D-1A team since a 49-7 win over Boston College in 1995. With the Black Knights returning 16 of 22 starters, there will be an air of prepared confidence, where again, Army should register an opening game win.

However, before we chalk up a check in the win column for the Black Knights, we need to take a hard look at how the 2006 versions of these teams match up. Though Arkansas State had their troubles outside of Jonesboro (1-4 on the road in 2005, plus a loss in the New Orleans Bowl against Southern Miss), the Indians were 5-1 at home and finished the season with a share of the Sun Belt Conference title.

This year should be no different for ASU. They are already being looked at as contenders for another Sun Belt Conference title, and though they have lost some key players at the skill positions, there is talent ready to fill the gaps. Gone are starting running backs Antonio Warren (25 attempts for 130 yards vs. Army in 2005) and Shemar Bracey, and QB Nick Noce. The quarterback situation will be the most interesting to watch for the Indians, as sophomore Travis Hewitt and redshirt freshman Corey Leonard battle for the starting position. Ironically, come summer practice, a potential similar battle could manifest between sophomore David Pevoto and incoming plebe Carson Williams for the Black Knights' starting QB spot.

Arkansas State's offensive scheme looks to run first, pass second. Important to the development of its offensive scheme is an effective backfield. Redshirt freshman Reggie Arnold was named the starter in spring ball. He is big enough (217 pounds) and fast enough (4.4 40) to make an immediate impact. Providing running room will be fullback Oren O'Neal. Easily the top Sun Belt fullback, and widely regarded as one of the top in the country, O'Neal will be relied upon to blow open holes for his running backs and pass protect the inexperienced quarterback tandem.

Army has its own question marks at the running back positions. With Carlton Jones, Scott Wesley, and Seth Gulsby now commissioned officers in the US Army, the Black Knights will place a back on the newly surfaced field at ASU that has never carried a ball in a college game before. Jamal Robinson, Ricky Lay, Wesley McMahand, Jerry Jones, Michael Herndon, and Tony Dace all competed for the starting position in the spring, with Robinson maintaining somewhat of a lead. USMAPS back Tony Moore comes to the Academy with high hopes and may take the lead role in the backfield on September 2nd. Regardless, Army's offense, similar to that of ASU, is a run first, pass second scheme and. Army's backs are inexperienced and small. Offensive coordinator Kevin Ross will need to find the right mix of running backs to keep the backfield fresh, and like ASU's fullback O'Neal, Mike Viti will be relied on heavily to open holes and protect the quarterback.

Arkansas State's top wide receivers and tight ends return to the starting lineup, and though there are no real barnburners, the group is solid in fundamentals across the board. The offensive line returns 3 starters and figures to be one of the best run block units in the Sun Belt conference. Like Army, the OL will need to provide protection for an inexperienced quarterback, and pass protection is considered one of its weaknesses.

Army's top wide receivers return, led by team captain Walter Hill and junior, Jeremy Trimble. The duo figures to be one of the strengths of the Army offense. Though they are slim on blazing speed, their routes are crisp and they are not afraid to catch one across the middle. It will be their responsibility to create some separation for their young QB. Tim Dunn takes the lead at Tight End and figures to play a key role in the offensive scheme.

Army's offensive line returns all five starters. Their experience will be critical as the backfield gains confidence in the early part of the game.

Defensively, Arkansas State returns Junior Linebacker Josh Williams. Williams, suspended from the team for the 2005 season, led the nation's freshmen in tackles in 2004 with 110. The defensive backs, who ranked 27th in the nation last year in passing defense, return intact, though last year's starting corner, Montis Harrison is still working through a shoulder injury that may keep him from returning to starting form. The big question for the Indians will be their Defensive Line. Some key injuries leave them without a significant pass rush, and their run stopping ability is average at best. If they do not develop depth on the line, they will have trouble with teams that run more than pass.

Army's defense looks to be the strength of the program coming out of the spring. The line and linebacker positions have strength and depth, and the safety positions may be the strongest on the field for the Black Knights, led by junior SS Caleb Campbell. The biggest adjustment will be at cornerback, where Ray Stith and Dhyan Tarver have moved on. Senior, Sean Grevious and sophomore Darren Newson should step into the role nicely. Depth across the board will keep Army's defense fresh and could play a big factor late in games for the Black Knights.

Special teams will be a test for both programs. Arkansas State's kicking game faced a heavy loss with the graduation of placekicker / punter Eric Neihouse. The return game is strong, with Kevin Jones (22.4 ypr) handling kickoffs and Gary Vincent taking the punts.

Army continues its woes at the placekicking spot, but should have enough talent in the punting department (Owen Tolson) and the return positions. With new blood taking the return responsibilities, the hope is that Corey Anderson, Jeremy Trimble and Carlos Sandiego will be able to step up and provide serviceable performances.

Analysis

These two teems are quite similar in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Both will field an inexperienced QB and backfield and rely heavily upon the blocking of their experienced fullbacks and offensive lines. Army will look to exploit the weak defensive run blocking of ASU's defensive line, and ASU will look to test Army's corners as a diversion from their power run attack.

Defensively, the Indians will look to force Army to throw the ball early and keep their defensive line as fresh as possible. Army will look to shut down the ASU run early then confuse the QB with blitzes and stunts and apply pressure often, forcing the Indians into committing errors.

Arkansas State should have some success on the ground and through the air, but Army's defense will close when necessary. Army will look to establish the running game early, and the key to its success may lie in the legs of its starting quarterback. Kevin Ross will need to be creative in his play calling and provide some element of surprise to keep the defense guessing and on its toes each play. Special teams will not play into the outcome in this one.

Army will establish its defensive strength in this one and make progress offensively. Arkansas State will keep it close, but won't be able to overcome the Black Knights defense. A closer game than last year, but still an Army win. Let's hope so it would be a great way to start off the 2006 season.



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