With the coronavirus bringing college sports to a halt, the Army football staff is finding workarounds to keep players’ spirits up and their football minds engaged.
“We can control two things: attitude and effort ... so trying to keep those guys motivated to have a positive attitude and a tremendous work ethic is all we’re concentrating on,” said Coach Jeff Monken in a video interview with media members.
15 days of spring practice lost includes in person meetings and a ball game for the Black Knights, all opportunities for leaders to establish the front runners at position groups for the upcoming season.
With 4,400 cadets spread across the country taking their classes online, Coach Monken and his team are leaning on teleconferences and group text messages to keep the team in tact.
“Three weeks ago I’d never heard of Zoom and now, you know, it’s a huge part of my life and I know how to navigate it and it’s been a great tool for getting those guys around each other ... what we've done is use this time offensively to really slow down our install,” said Offensive Coordinator, Coach Brent Davis during a teleconference.
Davis said many of the players are “chomping at the bit” to get on the field again after the Black Knights most recent season. A number of injuries suffered by Jabari Laws, Peyton Reeder, J.B. Hunter, and more, plagued Army last year but a silver lining of sorts is the team had an opportunity to play quite a few sophomores, according to Davis.
Even with Zoom as a resource, the staff knows that football hasn’t taken full priority for the team as they juggle the responsibility of a West Point education, at home.
“We have some meetings with our players, not a whole lot. I don’t want to inundate them,” said Monken. “Just a couple times a week for an opportunity for them to get together: interact, check on their emotional, mental and physical wellbeing and that of their family, and talk some Xs and Os which they really look forward to.”
Many of these talks are led by defensive coordinator Nate Woody, a new addition to the staff whose recent stint at Michigan gave him and up close an personal look at Army.
“Every year that I’ve been a defensive coordinator, we've used the 3-4 and then we’ll move into four down or even front in some passing situations, not as much out of the run,” said Woody.
Film, teaching tapes and optional tutorial meetings are tools he’s given the team so they can better understand their assignments and the fundamentals of the scheme. But a major roadblock remains — exercise.
Thought not physically together, the players continue to practice footwork on their own time, albeit without the supervision of their strength and conditioning coaches.
Initially, the strength staff could virtually coach the team by watching live or recorded video of the players lifting weights, allowing trainers to make corrections and suggestions. That has changed in the last week due to NCAA concerns over player safety.
“You can’t require workouts, they can’t be monitored because there’s no trainer,” said Monken. Virtual training sessions could present a liability without a trained professional physically on site in the event a player injures themselves.
“Some have weights available to them at their house in their garage or have other resistance bands or even some old buy-off-the-tv-one-eight-hundred-number equipment that no one has ever used in their house,” said Monken “And they’re dusting it off and finding a way to use it.”
Coaches have also introduced more body weight programs like pushups and pull ups or using items around the house, like concrete blocks, to keep their physical health in tact. Davis said the staff is even sending resistance bands and protein shakes to players to ensure they have the resources they need.
Unlike most other collegiate football programs, the Black Knights eat their meals in the mess halls with the other cadets on campus. The team nutritionist and training staff then supplements those meals. However, at home, not all students have access to the best food options.
Monken says NCAA guidelines permit Army to provide meals for the student athletes at any time and the training staff has “identified those guys that may have some difficulty getting their hands on as much food and the quality food that they need,” and are actively focusing their efforts on supporting them wherever needed.
While Army football in a physical group setting may be at a standstill due to the unfortunate circumstances, Monken says working through this challenge is great training for the players.
“When they [officers] train themselves, their units and their soldiers, they don’t often know when the kick off time is, when the date of that kick off is, what the opposite is going to be and we know that in sports,” said Monken.
“They’ve got to maintain positive attitude and an incredible work ethic to have themselves, the people that they’re responsible to and the ones that they will lead when the United States of America says, ‘Let’s go fight.”