Tactical

Six players (and coaches) to watch in the 2023 Army-Navy Game

The 124th gridiron clash between Army and Navy takes place Saturday at Gillette Stadium near Boston, Massachusetts.

If the U.S. Military Academy at West Point prevails, the cadets will seize the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy outright and notch a 6-6 season thanks to a late-in-the-year winning streak sparked by their shock 23-3 victory over a nationally ranked Air Force squad on Nov. 4. If the U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen win, their 6-6 mark under new head coach Brian Newberry would be a form of redemption for the team’s seniors, who risk becoming the first cohort of Navy football players to endure four consecutive losing seasons since 2002.

Military Times picked six key people whose decisions and performances will likely play a critical role in the game’s outcome.

1. Army offensive coordinator Drew Thatcher

This year was supposed to mark the demise of Army West Point’s signature triple option offense, thanks to NCAA rule changes that outlawed its customary perimeter and downfield chop blocks, which strike defenders below the waist. Replacing the under-center option was the shotgun-based spread option offense.

Although Thatcher’s offense remained run-first throughout the early portion of the season, it marked a huge cultural shift for a football program that once rated a 2017 Washington Post article about how it “almost never passes.”

But that changed Nov. 18, when the Black Knights hosted a 7-4 Coastal Carolina team in its most recent game.

Army’s erstwhile under-center option returned with a vengeance that day — Army piled up some 365 rushing yards against an unprepared Coastal Carolina squad. The cadets barely bothered with the air, only attempting two passes.

In some ways, Thatcher has already impacted Saturday’s game — the Midshipmen had to prepare for both the spread option and traditional under-center flexbone option, rather than focusing on defending only one scheme.

Navy defensive coordinator P.J. Volker told reporters Nov. 30 that he’s preparing the Mids’ defense for just “about anything” as a result.

We’ll see how the Black Knights line up on their first possession.

2 & 3. Navy inside linebackers Will Harbour and Colin Ramos

Middle linebackers are traditionally considered the brains — and soul — of a defensive front, and Navy has two game changers in senior Will Harbour (also a team captain) and junior Colin Ramos.

The midshipmen, both of whom received All-American Athletic Conference honors this week, have combined for 170 tackles and 15.5 tackles this year.

Should Army West Point try to throw Navy off by using multiple offensive schemes, Harbour and Ramos will play a critical role in coordinating the defense’s response — and in ensuring their teammates remained disciplined in their assignments against the triple option.

4. Army quarterback Bryson Daily

It may be cliché to include the quarterback in a “players to watch” list, but Army’s junior quarterback from Texas has been a steady and reliable performer for most of the year, save for Army’s 62-0 loss to LSU, which Daily missed with an injury.

In addition to being the key decision maker in any option offense (whether in the shotgun or in the traditional flexbone), Daily has shown the ability to take over key games.

When the Black Knights traveled to Denver to battle Air Force on Nov. 4, Daily logged a career-high in rushing attempts (36) and yards (170) as his two touchdowns and a smattering of field goals proved the difference against the Falcons. Will he put together a similar performance on Saturday?

5. Navy slotback Eli Heidenreich

In his sophomore season, Heidenreich has quietly become one of the Navy offense’s most potent threats. He leads the team with 326 receiving yards, which he’s amassed on a mere 15 catches — make no mistakes, Heidenreich is a potent home-run threat for the Navy offense.

Heidenreich’s explosiveness can change a game on a dime. His 69-yard touchdown catch on a seam route against Charlotte on Oct. 14 broke a nearly three-quarter deadlock and catalyzed the Mids’ 14-0 road victory. The slotback also ripped off big plays against South Florida and Eastern Carolina.

If Army’s defense overcommits to stopping the run — Navy’s bread-and-butter — then watch out for Heidenreich to make a potentially game-changing play.

6. Army kicker Quinn Maretzki

This list wouldn’t be complete without discussing the player who had the biggest impact on 2022′s Army-Navy matchup. Last year, Maretzki nailed a 37-yard field goal to send the rivalry into overtime for the first time ever, and then the Hawaii native slid a 39-yarder inside the right upright to win the game in

He’s remained reliable this year in his senior season, making 11 of his 13 field goal attempts and all of his extra points. His career long kick came in September against UT-San Antonio, when he made a 45-yard field goal.

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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