Duke opens the football season with a chance to avenge one of its most disappointing losses from last season.
The Blue Devils lost 21-16 at Army last Nov. 11, suffering their sixth loss in a row. Duke responded by winning its final three games, including a 36-14 Quick Lane Bowl win over Northern Illinois, to finish 7-6.
Even though Army turned in a stellar 10-3 season, the Blue Devils left Michie Stadium in West Point, N.Y., that cold November day disheartened with how poorly its offense performed. Army also returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, a crippling special-teams error by the Blue Devils that ultimately cost them the game.
With all that mind, here are 10 things to know about Duke’s first opponent for the new season, the Army Black Knights
1. Last season recap
Behind dynamic senior quarterback Ahmed Bradshaw, Army posted its first 10-win season since 1996 and won a bowl for the second year in a row. Bradshaw was a master in the triple-option attack, rushing for 1,746 yards and 14 touchdowns. Aside from the Duke win, Army beat Navy, 14-13, and capped its memorable season by beating San Diego State, 42-35, to win the Armed Forces Bowl at Fort Worth, Texas, on Dec. 23.
Coach Jeff Monken has led the Black Knights to back-to-back winning seasons. Army last posted three consecutive winning seasons from 1984-86.
Leading returning rusher: Running back Darnell Woolfolk gained 812 yards on 157 carries with 14 touchdowns as a junior last season. He’ll be the workhorse of the Black Knights’ option attack.
Leading returning passer: Charlotte native Kelvin Hopkins attempted 18 of Army’s 65 passes last season as a reserve, playing in just seven games.
Leading returning receiver: This is not a typo. Kell Walker led Army with five catches for 111 yards last season. They run the ball. That’s what the Black Knights do.
Leading returning tackler: Linebacker James Nachtigal had 103 tackles last season and will be counted on for that kind of production again.
Leading returning defensive back: While the defensive backfield was hit hard by injuries, safety James Gibson helped stabilize the back end with his presence in 2017. Now a senior, he’ll look to build on the 45 tackles he produced last season.
3. Notable returning players
Army, a football independent, has plenty of star power returning.
It starts with Woolfolk, who is on the watch lists for the Walter Camp and Maxwell awards as national player of the year.
Nachtigal is a candidate for the Nagurski Award as the nation’s top linebacker.
Walker is on the watch list for the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player.
4. Key losses
Bradshaw is a huge loss for the Army offense and how the Black Knights replace him will determine what kind of season they have. At the same time, Army also must replace four starting offensive linemen.
On defense, linebacker Alex Aukerman (70 tackles, including 15.5 for losses) was a big-time playmaker a season ago as a senior. Senior defensive lineman John Voit (7.5 tackles for losses) will be missed up front as will senior cornerback Rhyan England in the secondary.
5. Breakout candidate
Connor Slomka moves up the depth chart at fullback for his junior season and could be a bigger factor in the potent running game. As a sophomore, the 6-foot, 240-pounder gained 216 yards on 49 carries. That’s 4.4 yards per carry.
With defenses focusing on Woolfolk, Walker and Hopkins, Slomka is capable of busting up the middle to gain more yardage this season.
6. A strength
By design, Army has so many options to gain yardage on the ground while not putting the ball in danger. Hopkins, who played high school football for Charlotte powerhouse Independence, takes Bradshaw’s role. He’s a solid athlete, having been named all-state as a senior. He played basketball for the Patriots as well.
Woolfolk averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season while Walker gained 7.3 yards every time he ran the ball. Slomka, Andy Davidson and Calen Holt offer even more experienced ball carriers in the backfield.
The key will be how Army’s rebuilt offensive line performs.
7. A weakness
Army’s defensive front lacks the size and athleticism to matchup well when it plays a power 5 school like Duke.
While senior defensive lineman Wunmi Oyetuga has experience, he’s never been much of a playmaker.
The Black Knights ranked near the bottom of Division I in forcing fumbles, recording tackles for losses and passes defensed last season. In those so-called “havoc plays”, Army was 108th in the country according to SBnation.com’s Football Study Hall advanced statistics system.
That makes it easier for opponents to move the ball down the field.
8. 2018 recruiting ranking
As a service academy, Army’s recruiting effort is far different than the rest of college football. So recruiting ranking don’t really apply. For example, 247sports.com has Army’s incoming class 116th in the country after finishing 120th last year.
The top freshmen, according to the rankings, are three-star players in linebacker Cade Bernard of Seminole, Texas, and defensive lineman Kwabena Bonsu from Avondale Estates, Ga.
9. Coaching changes
Monken experienced no changes to his staff in the offseason. There are six assistants still on staff who arrived with him in 2014.
10. Schedule (all times ET)
Friday vs. Duke (7 p.m., ESPNU)
Sept. 8 vs. Liberty (noon, CBSSN)
Sept. 15 vs. Hawaii (noon, CBSSN)
Sept. 22 at Oklahoma (7 p.m.)
Sept. 29 at Buffalo
Oct. 13 at San Jose State
Oct. 20 vs. Miami (noon, CBSSN)
Oct. 27 at Eastern Michigan
Nov. 3 vs. Air Force (noon, CBSSN)
Nov. 10 vs. Lafayette (noon, CBSSN)
Nov. 17 vs. Colgate (noon, CBSSN)
Dec. 8 Navy (3 p.m. CBS)