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Smith, Army spring ahead at first practice

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Time has flied for Arik Smith at West Point.

Smith stepped onto the field for the first practice of his last spring football Wednesday afternoon.

It was Smith’s first spring experience since the Black and Gold game on April 12, 2019 his freshman season.

Wednesday’s practice provided some semblance of normalcy for Smith, his teammates and Army’s coaching staff. One year ago, Smith was trying to learn the concepts of new coordinator Nate Woody through Zoom meetings.

“I knew that I would some day be in the position,” said Smith, a two-year starting linebacker, on his final installment of spring football. “I didn’t think it would come as fast as it has. I’m definitely excited to be in this part of the season. This is where we can get better and get ready for (the 2021 season).”

Smith is one many returning starters that helped Army finish 9-3 last season. The Black Knights have 16 players back that started at least one game on a defense that led the nation in yards allowed per game.

When it was brought to Jeff Monken’s attention that the 2021 team could be the deepest and most talented in his seven-year tenure during a zoom call after Wednesday’s practice, Army’s coach said, “in terms of wealth of talent and depth, I don’t know if I’m comfortable saying that. They are some positions where we have some experienced guys.” Monken pointed out all but one slotback and all four quarterbacks, who started and won a game last season, are returning.

How will Monken approach the spring with the quartet of quarterbacks – Tyheir Tyler, Christian Anderson, Jemel Jones and Cade Ballard?

”We are trying to give everybody reps,” Monken said. “We are going to play with one quarterback at a time so if one of those guys is capable of helping us at another position and gives us the best chance to win having him in the game, then we may make some changes there. But, I think there’s some good competition.

”What’s nice for Coach (Cody) Worley, Coach (Brent) Davis and for the offense is to have several guys that we feel very comfortable putting in the huddle, under center and all have the ability to run the the offense and keep scrimmages, practices and games going for us.”

Monken said the starting quarterback, “needs to be the guy that everybody in the program is confident in. The guy that is going to be ‘The Guy’ needs to have that about him. I think all of those guys lead in their own way and have the ability to be out front of the team. Cade Ballard has never lost a game as starting quarterback. In high school, he was 30-0 and he’s 2-0 here. Hard to argue why you wouldn’t put him in the game and let him start. He’s never lost one. Tyhier Tyler has got a great connection with our guys and our team. They believe in him. He’s a competitor and he’s tough.”

Why did Army start its spring practice later than usual? A talk with an old pal helped Monken make the decision. Former Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman told Monken that his current coach Mack Brown had decided to begin spring practice North Carolina later due to NCAA extending the dead recruiting period to the end of the May. Army will hold its Black and Gold spring game on April 30.

“There’s a lot of teams that are done and they have been done for weeks and we probably put ourselves at risk in case there was another shutdown,” Monken said. “I think having the extra time in the weight room and the extra time to prepare for spring ball was good for us. I think all of our players particularly our young players feel very prepared for spring ball.”

Position changes: Spring practice is a good time to experiment with players at néw or different positions. Junior Wilson Catoe has moved from linebacker to fullback. Catoe was a special teams standout last season. Freshmen Delshawn Traylor and Jaylon West have switched from quarterback to slotback. Sophomore Ben Koch, a tight end last season, is now playing on the offensive line.

Linebacker legacy: Arik Smith has played next to some talent in his two years as a starter. Cole Christiansen is a linebacker for the Chargers and Jon Rhattigan is expected to get a shot in the NFL after a sensational 2020 season. Who will pair up with Smith in the inside in 2021?

“Spencer Jones,” Smith said of the freshman who started in place of Rhattigan in the Liberty Bowl. “He’s the one that pops up the most. I think he did a phenomenal job against West Virginia (in the bowl game).”

Monken quote: “I love spring practice. I love football. We could practice it every single day of the year and I would never get tired of it. I love this game. I love this sport and what it teaches and just really love being a part of this team. It’s the most fun for me as a football coach to be out there on the practice field and be out there playing football.”

Check out our interview with Arik Smith and Jeff Monken’s media zoom below.

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