Every successful coach looks back with pride at the players that proved to be the foundation of building a program.
If Army West Point football coach Jeff Monken succeeds at turning around the Black Knights, count on him someday mentioning Rhyan England among others. The sophomore starting safety from Suwanee (Ga.) Collins Hill was the first recruit Monken called upon landing the Army job on Christmas Eve 2013.
Monken had England’s phone number on file from recruiting him to play at Georgia Southern. Monken’s success as Georgia Southern’s head coach and experience as a former Navy assistant coach under Paul Johnson impressed officials at West Point to hire him.
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” England said. “Joining the military was something I had thought about. I wanted to follow in the path of my grandfather and father, who both served in the Army.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it when he first called, but then I decided this is the best opportunity I’ll have in my life. I have an opportunity to do great things in football and for my country as a second lieutenant. I’ve embraced it and can’t wait to do more things.”
The second season of Monken’s rebuilding plan has produced only a 1-4 record as the Black Knights prepare to host Duke (4-1) Saturday at Michie Stadium. But the four losses are by a combined 16 points, so progress has been made with a young roster that requires patience. There are signs of progress over last year’s 4-8 record.
England, a 5-foot-10, 192-pounder, started five games as a freshman and is one of six sophomore starters this season – four on defense and two on offense. The two-deep depth chart lists 20 sophomores and freshmen.
But don’t try to offer youth as an excuse for Army’s losing record that is dangerously close to bowl eligibility elimination. The latest loss was 20-14 last week at Penn State. That result followed a 58-36 win at Eastern Michigan, which it should be noted a week later trailed LSU only 30-22 entering the fourth quarter at Death Valley.
Prior to Army’s first victory, the first three losses were by a total of 10 points: Fordham, 37-35; Connecticut, 22-17; and Wake Forest, 17-14.
“A lot of young guys have stepped up,” England said. “Everybody has embraced their role on the team. Everyone wants to do their role to get this team a victory and to be the best Army team we can be. Everyone is grinding and doing their best.”
England has made enough plays to rank third in tackles behind inside linebackers Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King. He has three tackles for a loss and one fumble recovery.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Army and the Blue Devils often recruit the same player because of academic standards at the two schools, but he acknowledged committing to Army, Navy or Air Force is at another level. England’s story following Monken from Georgia Southern to Army epitomizes Cutcliffe’s point.
“We all know what they are doing away from football field,” Cutcliffe said. “That requires commitment. It took commitment to go there just making that decision.”
In recent seasons, Army has faced Stanford, Northwestern and now Duke – the top three Division I football programs at academically elite institutions. Duke’s players have it tougher than players at most schools – particularly football factories – but this week the Blue Devils know they have it easier than their opponent.
Duke All-ACC center Matt Skura said his first offer out of Columbus (Ohio) Worthington Kilbourne was from Air Force, but he wasn’t ready for the demands of a service academy and the five-year military commitment upon graduation.
“Their school and football commitments are 10 times tougher than what we have,” said Skura, a fifth-year senior. “They are the future protectors of our country. Obviously we have great respect for them. I had a friend from my high school graduate from the Naval Academy. I understood what he going through. He didn’t play sports, but it is a huge honor to graduate from one those schools.”
Duke redshirt freshman middle linebacker Tinashe Bere also has the added perspective from a high school teammate at Cincinnati Sycamore. Jake Barnhorst is an Air Force offensive lineman.
“When I went back home and saw him,” said Bere, “I knew he had been through much more than me.”
The West Point demands won’t change by the time England graduates a second lieutenant, but he’s confident Army football will be winning more games by then.
“You can see improvement in everybody,” England said. “Whether you’re a rookie or a veteran, you’re in there to make plays. Coach wouldn’t put you out there if he didn’t think you can play.”