Army senior safety Xavier Moss says the Black Knights take the field each week with added inspiration. They play for the memory of teammate Brandon Jackson.
Army is wearing No. 28 helmet stickers to honor Jackson. He was a sophomore starting cornerback from nearby Queens, N.Y., who was killed in a single-car accident a day after Army defeated Rice in its home opener.
“He always brought energy to the team,” Moss said. “He always played hard. We honor him by playing hard.”
This week Moss expects additional support from some special friends he made over the summer when Army (3-1) comes off a bye week to face Duke (2-3, 0-2 ACC Coastal) Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
These aren’t fair-weather friends, either. If Hurricane Matthew making its way up the Atlantic Ocean coast dumps rain on the Carolinas over the weekend, Moss’ new friends will show up rain or shine. They are soldiers and officers from stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., 65 miles south of Duke’s campus in Durham.
Moss, who will graduate with a civil engineering degree, met them during his summer training. It is part of the curriculum for rising seniors before they graduate as lieutenants.
“They said they would be coming to the game,” Moss said. “It was a great experience. We train at West Point, but this was a chance to train with real Army units.”
Fort Bragg is home to the 82nd Airborne Division. As is the Black Knights’ custom, they’ll wear stickers on their helmets that recognize a nearby Army base. The 82nd Airborne specializes in parachute assaults.
Moss, a 6-foot-2, 197-pounder from Houston, and Rhyan England (5-10, 192) are second-year starting safeties. They opened the season in the secondary alongside two sophomore cornerbacks — Jackson, a returning starter, and Marcus Hyatt (5-10, 170), a first-year starter — although he started one game in 2015.
The foursome worked well together in the season-opening wins over Temple (28-13) and Rice (31-14). Temple threw for only 168 yards without a touchdown pass and the Black Knights intercepted three balls. Rice gained only 197 yards passing with one touchdown and one interception.
Sophomore Elijah Riley (6-0, 190) has replaced Jackson in the starting lineup the past two games.
“I think we’re adapting fine,” Moss said. “We have capable guys coming in; they’re doing a great job.”
Army’s pass defense faces its toughest test this this week against Duke redshirt freshman quarterback David Jones, a 6-foot-5, 210-pounder with NFL potential. Jones threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-35 win at Notre Dame two weeks ago, but he also has experienced growing pains. He forced too many passes and was intercepted five times in a 34-20 loss to Virginia last week.
Jones threw for 300 yards against Virginia for the second time this season, completing 33-of-54 for 324 yards but no TDs.
“We watched a lot of film of him,” Moss said. “He has a good arm. We know he can put the ball in there. We have to be on our man. We know they’re a good team and have a good coach (David Cutcliffe). They beat Notre dame. They executed well.”
Duke is experiencing its own secondary adjustments. The Blue Devils lost third-year starting safety DeVon Edwards to a season-ending knee injury early in the Notre Dame game. The reshuffled secondary struggled in the loss to Virginia, allowing mobile quarterback Kurt Benkert to throw for 336 yards and three touchdowns.
Army is coming off its own disappointing performance. The Black Knights were winning at Buffalo, but they allowed two fourth-quarter touchdowns and fell in overtime, 23-20.
The kicking game contributed to the loss. Kicker Mitchell Howard injured an ankle making a tackle. Backup kicker Blake Wilson missed a 34-yard attempt in the game’s final seconds that would have prevented OT.
“We let that game slip away at Buffalo,” Moss said. “It’s our job to play at a level we know we can play. We didn’t execute at Buffalo.”
Moss became a starter on defense after a spring drill transition following his sophomore year at wide receiver. He says he’s playing more aggressively this year. He had to think too much at a new position a year ago.
“My goal is to be the best I can be for my teammates,” he said. “When I look at the film, I want to feel like I’m playing as hard as I can play. When I looked at last year’s film, I knew I could play harder. Once you understand the process, you can play harder.”
If he needs a reminder to play hard, all he has to do is rub the No. 28 sticker on the back of his helmet. Or on this Saturday, look up into the stands for some Army fans from Fort Bragg.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055