With Army and Air Force squaring off this weekend for the second leg of the Commander in Chief’s Trophy series, I caught up with NFL veteran and current CBS Sports broadcaster, Jay Feely, to discuss service academy football and the upcoming game. Among his NFL and other college football broadcasting duties, Jay has called many Army football games since 2015.
“It’s a distinct honor for everyone at CBS to cover these games and highlight our academies and what they do not only on the football field, but also when they graduate and serve our country,” Jay said.
I dove right in and asked his thoughts on players entering the NFL directly after graduation, despite having a commitment to serve in the military. Although five years is the norm for graduates, special considerations can be made for athletes who are drafted into the professional ranks.
There are multiple players in the NFL who concurrently serve in the military, most notably Naval Academy graduate Keenan Reynolds on the Seattle Seahawks practice roster, Naval Academy graduate Joe Cardona on the New England Patriots, and Air Force Academy graduate Garrett Griffin on the New Orleans Saints practice roster.
“It’s the decision of the armed forces and the government, but I think it’s a positive thing to have those players, if they’re worthy, skill-level wise, to play in the NFL. It shines a positive light on our academies and all of our service members. If you look at Joe Cardona, the long snapper for the Patriots, he’s been playing and serving at the same time. He goes in on his off day on Tuesday throughout the season, then Wednesday morning, he goes back to practice with the Patriots and does everything he has to do to be a member of one of the most demanding organizations in all of sports. So I think it can work and I think it’s a positive. When you watch (Alejandro) Villanueva play, everyone talks about Army and the fact that he served.”
Going into this weekend’s Army versus Air Force game, it’s notable that Army is 6-2 and it’s clear that head coach Jeff Monken is to thank for a lot of Army’s success in the midst of his fourth year in the position. Here’s what Feely had to say about the success Monken has had at West Point.
“If you look at what Coach Monken has been able to do, to turn that team around, it all derives from his belief in how they were going to be successful. His recipe for success is no turnovers, number one; limiting negative plays, number two; positive yardage and being aggressive on fourth down, excellent defense that limits big plays and solid special teams.”
He continued by saying that “When they were struggling back in 2016, when they went 2-10, it was my first year calling the games. They had 38 fumbles that year. If you look at last year, they went 10-3, won the CIC trophy, won their second straight bowl game and they only had seven fumbles on the year. This year, theyʼre doing an excellent job with ball security. They have five fumbles on the year, four of those came in their first game against Duke, which was a loss. What theyʼre doing is not having negative plays that set you behind.”
Feely also emphasized how the ability to not turn the ball over coupled with a very effective offense that is aggressive on 4th down has led to their success.
“When you have an offense like Army has, that runs the triple option, that runs the ball well, gets first downs, and keeps the ball in possession, they lead the country in time of possession, that becomes really effective. When you couple that with the decision they made at the beginning of the season last year to be much more aggressive on 4th down and you see they are very successful, it leads to extending drives which makes them a much better team.”
While Army has been effective this season, Air Force has seemingly been unable to find ways to win. Most notably, the Falcons have been testing the passing abilities of their current quarterback, Isaiah Sanders, so I asked Jay if he thinks that Air Force will continue to shift to a passing based offense.
“I donʼt think they (Air Force) changed that much. Theyʼre only averaging 137 yards in the air per game. Theyʼre still averaging 255 yards on the ground, so itʼs two to one rushing to passing. Theyʼre trying to find their way. They have had issues at the quarterback position. They have had three different quarterbacks, they have had injuries, ineffectiveness, turnovers at the position, so theyʼre trying to find answers. When people know youʼre going to run the ball, you have to do things outside the norm to try to find ways to move the ball. They had 333 yards running the ball in their win against Navy.”
Although service academies are not in “Power 5” conferences, they often schedule a game or two each season against a top tier team and usually, the academies play surprisingly well. For example, Air Force went 5-7 in the 2017, but they were able to hold then 7th ranked Michigan to 29 points. This year, Oklahoma escaped against Army with a 28-21 win. I asked what factors allow the academies to hold top ranked opponents to close games.
“These teams donʼt see the triple option much. When you look at a team like Duke, they play and have a lot of success against Army and Georgia Tech because they play them each year. Theyʼre used to the triple option and they know what they have to do. When you donʼt see it very often and you have to play it once every four or five years and it will be the only time your players see it in their career, you have to stop and get rid of all your fundamentals defensively and you have to think and reteach everything in a matter of a few days, it’s really hard.”
“Take the Army game against Oklahoma, they possessed the ball for 40 minutes and they continued to run the ball and keep it away from Oklahoma and they have a very good defense. Jay Bateman is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. he does an excellent job of scheming against every team they play. So when you take a ball- possessing offense that doesnʼt turn the ball over and runs very effectively and you couple that with a defense that has a coordinator thatʼs very creative on multiple fronts with multiple schemes, its a tough time to win, even if youʼre one of the best teams in the country.”
On paper, a side by side comparison shows that Air Force has a tough road to pave on Saturday when they take on the Black Knights. I asked Jay to give me his thoughts on Air Force’s chance to prove themselves against Army.
“Air Force has had a lot of success against Army. They have owned Army over the last 20 years. Army was finally able to get a win under Jeff Monken last year. I donʼt think you can discount what theyʼve been able to do. Troy Calhoun is 9-2 against Army in his career, so he knows how to beat them. Any time you go into these games, youʼre going to have a maximum amount of effort. Youʼre going to have maximum attention to detail during the week. These players want this game desperately and theyʼre going to give everything they have and it all comes down to execution and who makes plays and who doesnʼt make critical mistakes that lead to losses. If you look at last year, no one turned the ball over, but Army made the plays when they needed to and ended up winning the game 21-0.”
If Air Force is able to take down Army, the Falcons will win back the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for this year. Regardless, Army and Navy will play on December 8th, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia in America’s Game. As the resident Air Force contributor, I couldn’t resist asking if there could ever be a scenario where Air Force could ever play in the final regular season game of the year against either of the other academies.
“I think theres something really special about the Army-Navy game and where they put it. They moved back a week and it’s the only college football game that week and all the attention is on that game and the history that goes along with that game. When you look at the CiC Trophy, Air Force has won it 20 times, so theyʼve been in the hunt and proven themselves time and time again. I donʼt think them not being in that game at the end of the year takes away from anything that they have accomplished, but I think there is something incredibly special about that game. I think it’s awesome that our country pauses and watches that game together and honors our military. I think every serviceman and women around the world sees that game and sees those boys battling out there and I think thereʼs a measure of pride that is just awesome to see.”
Thanks so much to Jay Feely for taking the time to speak with us at Against All Enemies about service academy football and its place in the college football landscape. Jay has a great football mind that is shown not just through his storied career on the field, but also the success he has found in the booth. Not only that, he has a great understanding and appreciation for our service members that doesn’t go unnoticed. Be sure to tune in to CBS Sports Network this Saturday at 12 PM Eastern to watch Army take on Air Force at West Point and see who comes away with the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy this season!