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13 Games, 20 Completions: An Oral History of the 2017 Army Passing Attack

Jordan Asberry, Army Football

Jordan Asberry, Army Football

Army West Point does not pass the football very much. Almost never, in fact.

You will pass the ball more playing pickup football with your family on Thanksgiving, and you will likely complete more passes.

This doesn’t faze Army, winner of 10 games in 2017 and the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. The Black Knights, who skillfully operate the triple option, ranked dead last nationally in every major passing stat in 2017 -- yards per game (27.8), attempts per game (five) and total passing yards (361).

Army’s 361 total passing yards for their entire 13-game season were less than what the top three passing teams in the nation -- Oklahoma State, Washington State and Oklahoma -- averaged in a single game.

The advantage to rarely passing (the Black Knights had four games in which they failed to complete a single pass) is that every reception is a cause for celebration. Army offensive coordinator Brent Davis and starting quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw can recall every single one of the Knights’ 20 total completions in 2017 from memory.

Here is an oral history of Army’s 20 completed passes in 2017, including eight -- eight!!! -- against Temple. You could say the guys from West Point turned into an Air Raid in that come-from-behind OT win.

“Yeah, I'm not really sure if I’d ever call us an Air Raid,” Davis says.

Game 2, vs. Buffalo

18-yard completion from Ahmad Bradshaw to Jordan Asberry [1st Q, first-and-10, Army 33]
DAVIS: That was our first of the year? I do remember it, actually. I know it was a wheel route and Jordan was caught from behind, but I can’t recall the formation. And I remember it could’ve been a touchdown, but it was a bit underthrown.

Army QB Ahmad Bradshaw throwing a completed pass

BRADSHAW: I’ve seen teams before where when you watch them on film they won’t even look at our receivers. Their corners and safeties won’t even look at them, they’ll just go straight for the dive [play]. They won’t even play the pass.

(-1)-yard completion from Bradshaw to Calen Hart [1st Q, third-and-9 at Army 42]
DAVIS: Any time our offense completes a pass for negative yardage, we’ve failed to execute. That’s on us.

Game 3, at Ohio State

9-yard completion from Bradshaw to Zach Saum. [2nd Q, second-and-8 at Army 43]
BRADSHAW: It was across the middle and Zach was rolling out. He made a great catch.

10-yard completion from Bradshaw to Kell Walker [4th Q, third-and-12 at OSU 40]

DAVIS: The first pass was a bootleg, but what I remember most is the chances we missed against Ohio State. We had some. Late in the game we had a wheel route that should’ve been a touchdown; their safety just made a great play.

Game 5, vs. UTEP

42-yard completion from Bradshaw to Jordan Asberry, Touchdown [3rd Q, second-and-9 at UTEP 42]
DAVIS: We were in an unbalanced trips formation, and we faked the toss to the B-back. Jordan Asberry was playing a position he doesn’t normally play; he was split out as the No. 1 receiver and ran a post, and man, he was wide open. 

That was a play where we hadn’t shown the formation at all to that point, then earlier in the game we ran the play as a toss to the B-back to set it up. The toss play gained us eight or 10 yards, so the next time we came out, on this play, in the same formation, they were looking for the toss.

Then we came out the next time and threw it to Jordan on the play action. We cleared the free safety out and we had 2-on-1 on the corner and the post was wide open.

BRADSHAW: My first touchdown pass of the season. We’d worked it a few times in practice and I’d overthrown him. I just remember “You can’t overthrow this, whatever you do don’t overthrow it.” So the coaches said it looked like a punt because I kind of lofted it, that Jordan should’ve fair- caught it.

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14-yard completion from Bradshaw to Jermaine Adams [3rd Q, third-and-12 at Army 7]
DAVIS: We don’t get in third-and-10-plus that often, so that was a specific call for that down and distance situation. It was a scheme we planned on using more in the year, but we hadn’t much to that point because we’d been able to stay on schedule. The play was a sprint-out pass to Adams. Ahmad set it up well in the pocket.

BRADSHAW: This is one of my favorite calls, a rollout with a trips formation. I completed it in practice all the time so I knew Jermaine would catch it.

24-yard completion from Bradshaw to Jeff Ejekam [4th Q, first-and-10 at UTEP 41]
DAVIS: I’m almost positive that was a bootleg -- Ahmad hit Jeff on a corner route and he had to adjust back to the ball and he caught it. Jeff made a really nice play. In two years, Ejekam caught every single ball we threw to him with the exception of one.

BRADSHAW: I remember Jeff being super hype for this because their DBs were talking a lot before the game. A lot of teams try to pressure us into throwing the ball. They said they’d be shutting him down, he wouldn’t be catching anything.

Game 6, at Rice

9-yard completion from Kelvin Hopkins to Kjetil Cline [4th Q, first-and-10 at Army 25]

DAVIS: We had a big lead. It was [Hopkins’] first play in the game, and we wanted to work on his passing because if Kelvin was ever our quarterback full time, he was going to throw the ball more. We wanted to open with a pass, and he threw a hitch to the left to the backside of a trips formation.

Game 8, vs. Temple

BRADSHAW: What I remember is that their defense was really, really good. And I remember their DBs getting a little relaxed as the game went on. I remember thinking, “Man, they don’t know what’s coming.”

24-yard completion from Bradshaw to Jeff Ejekam [2nd Q, first-and-10 at Temple 28]

DAVIS: We knew they’d be keyed up to stop us in the red zone on the first play. We felt like we could do something. It was a drag route -- they’re fast and they react really quickly. Their linebackers are fast-flow guys so he came right behind the linebackers off the fake and we hit and there wasn’t anyone there.

That was a crossing route on the boot, he ran a 10-yard cross route and Jeff was wide open, going from right to left. 

18-yard completion from Bradshaw to Jordan Asberry [2nd Q, second-and-7 at Army 28]

DAVIS: That was one we checked to a pass from a run, right in the middle of the cadence. Believe it or not, we actually do check to a pass sometimes. That could’ve been a touchdown if we hit Jordan in stride, but Temple’s pretty fast, and they caught up to him.

Ahmad hit Jordan on a post-wheel route combo, and that was a check by Ahmad, which was a great check. We had worked all week on that.

32-yard completion from Bradshaw to Kell Walker [4th Q, second-and-14 at Army 16]

BRADSHAW: That was my second-favorite pass of the year, because it kind of broke down. I wasn’t throwing the ball to Kell, the pass was for John Trainor. Kell just got in the way and intercepted it. It was a mess that turned into a miracle.

15-yard completion from Hopkins to John Trainor [4th Q, third-and-15 at Army 27]

DAVIS: What I remember most about the Temple game is Hopkins just really, really being on point in the second half. We put Kelvin in the first time in the second quarter -- he had Jermaine Adams wide open on a post corner route and overthrew him by 8 yards. Coach [Jeff] Monken read him the riot act at halftime, as well as [quarterbacks coach] Mitch Ware.

He came back after missing that pass that badly and was really accurate on that drive. It was awesome.

BRADSHAW: We all compete in practice for the one-minute drill job, and Kell had performed the best. He was our one-minute quarterback. We knew he was going in. We’d practiced all those situations, all those combinations we used.

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6-yard completion from Hopkins to Kell Walker [4th Q, second-and-4 at Army 48]

DAVIS: At this point [Hopkins has] calmed down, he’s doing what we’ve known he could do in practice. This is why he won the job for the one-minute drills. To stand up in the pressure of that moment after struggling, it was a great moment. Coaches love those moments.

21-yard completion from Hopkins to Kell Walker [4th Q, third-and-10 at Temple 46]
DAVIS: He threw this ball to Kell Walker over the middle and it was right behind the linebacker’s ear and between the deep safety. He bent it over the middle. If it’s a foot left or right it’s incomplete and he nailed it. He threw it into a coke bottle.

9-yard completion from Hopkins to Jermaine Adams [4th Q, second-and-10 at Temple 25]
DAVIS: [Hopkins] threw to the sideline to Jermaine, and Jermaine kept his toes in bounds to make a great catch. 

16-yard completion from Hopkins to Jermaine Adams, Touchdown [4th Q, third-and-1 at Temple 16]

BRADSHAW: This was my favorite pass of the year. I rarely ever get to be looking at the game from the sideline and it was interesting to see all the work we put in paying off. We’d done that drill every day and it was the same scenario in practice.

DAVIS: We actually designed the play to go to Kell Walker over the middle. Kell was wide open but they brought one more than we could block and so he had to throw it off his back foot and went to the outside receiver, Adams. We were in a doubles formation, standard spread, and he threw it to the X instead of going to Kell because if he’d held on to it he might not have gotten it off.

That was the only time they blitzed us on the whole drive. So it was straight man coverage and the ball went exactly where we needed it to.

That defense, I’ve got a lot of respect for Geoff Collins as a coach, that game and that situation was probably the most improbable win we had. At least in terms of those percentages of outcome that ESPN has, when we got the ball back it would’ve been pretty low.

We protected better than we thought against that level of pass rushers. That was a huge confidence boost for our team.

Game 10, vs. Duke

42-yard completion from Bradshaw to Kell Walker [2nd Q, third-and-9 at Army 37]

DAVIS: I definitely remember that one because it was the only one we had a chance to hit. Duke really does a great job with their defense.

We were worried if we put Kell in the game and lined Ahmad up in shotgun they’d blitz us and we might not be able to pick it up. So we put Ahmad under center to give us a base call. We had a good play schematically -- it’s a gap protection, so could pick up a linebacker if they sent one.

The call was 81 Duck Squirrel: We faked the toss and we booted [bootlegged] out towards the field, faked throwing downfield and then threw it back to where we initially faked the toss. That was a big play in the game to get us field position.

Game 11, at North Texas

27-yard completion from Bradshaw to John Trainor [4th Q, third-and-6 at North Texas 29]

DAVIS: That was huge. We had to score, that was the same exact play we hit the year before against those guys in the bowl game. It was a vertical route by John; he ran a great route and it was a great throw. At that point we had to have that play to stay in the game. We ultimately lost the game but that pass kept us on pace with them.

BRADSHAW: They were another team that completely disregarded the pass. We noticed, and lo and behold, the safety didn’t pay any attention to the slot, which was John.

Our receivers at Army are really special. They’re really talented, but they’re really selfless. They take pride in buying in to this offense and blocking. They get hyped. So when those guys do make a play and show everyone what they’re capable of, after hearing all about what they supposedly can’t do, it’s great. 

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Game 12, vs Navy

20-yard completion from Bradshaw to Calen Holt [3rd Q, third-and-7 at Army 23]

DAVIS: That play stands out because it’s Navy, but it really stands out because we probably threw it 20-25 times in practice just to run the play one time in a game. We worked on that play for three weeks.

We’d shown so much of a certain formation all year -- split zone with both backs inserting. We felt good just on the fact that we had shown that look out of our backfield so many times, and we’d run out of it very successfully against Air Force. We showed it so much all season, probably 20 times vs. Air Force alone.

I knew [Navy] would be keying that split zone play, so we showed it to them early, maybe five times before we passed. Once we saw it, we felt confident [the pass] would be open. It was just a matter of when we’d use it in the game.

I didn’t know we were going to use it on a third-and-7, because at that down and distance we’re just as likely to run it with Ahmad in there. But I thought that was as good a pass as we had.

We knew the safeties would be very active and [Holt] just ran right by the safety. The pass was short in those conditions [heavy snow] and Calen made an unbelievable play coming back for it. Caught it off the snow, you could say.

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BRADSHAW: That was my third-favorite pass of the year. That play in particular, we can’t run it at all if both of their linebackers blitz. So the coaches are telling me, “If you see any linebacker inching up or showing blitz, call it off.”

So I broke the huddle, got out there and looked and it’s five defensive linemen on our five O-linemen, and two inside linebackers. It’s seven against our five and if either linebacker blitzes it breaks the play.

And they both blitzed. I just remember thinking, “Oh, this is not good.” I’m supposed to check out if they show blitz, but they didn’t blitz until after the ball was hiked.

By the time I got the snap all I could think was, “Get rid of it or get out [of the pocket].” Then I just remember Calen making an amazing catch. I have no idea how. I threw it off my back foot and the ball was freezing. He had to stop and go back to catch it. If I would’ve got it to him early he might’ve scored.

Game 13, vs San Diego State

6-yard completion from Bradshaw to Cam Harrison [3rd Q, third-and-5 at Army 30]

DAVIS: Cam Harrison’s only catch so far. I just remember thinking that we had to score. I really felt strongly that if we stayed on schedule and didn’t have negative yardage plays, that we’d be in good shape. In 91 snaps we had two negative yards plays all day, maybe three?

Their defense gave us a bunch of looks. A bunch. We had to simplify our plan to have good play calls. They gave us like 15 different calls in the first half. You don’t normally see that against our offense.

Part of the reason we didn’t pass is that we didn’t get set off schedule much in the game. I remember thinking, “Just don’t call something that will screw us up for minus-5,” or something. Our job as coaches is to not call something that puts them in a bad situation.

And we were playing very physical in that game; that was our season high in knockdowns. We knocked 170 guys down that day. That’s a lot. In 91 snaps, that’s a lot of people. With our guys being that physical we just really played well and we felt really confident.

We may not have led the country in scoring but if you look at points per possession I think we were third in the nation. To me that’s the most important stat offensively, because that’s relative to how many snaps your defense is playing. That’s helping your team.

If we shorten the game down to where there’s only seven possessions a game and we score on five of them, we’re pretty hard to beat.

Written by Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2018 National College Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2018 season.