This feature originally appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of Army Football Gameday vs. New Hampshire.
by Ryan Yanoshak
Tony Dace could care less if he runs for two yards or 202 yards during today’s game with New Hampshire. All the senior running back wants to do is help his team win football games and give back to a place that has meant so much to him.
A 100-yard game against Navy. Check, accomplished last year.
Rush of over 30 yards. Check, done against Temple last year.
Catch the ball out of the backfield. Yep, he has that covered.
Stats don’t matter. Media coverage is nice but not required.
Now, what Dace and all of his teammates are looking for in 2008 is to win football games.
“I want to win,” said Dace. “I want to win games for my teammates. It’s about us. We haven’t had much success and now our backs are against the wall. Whatever the coaches ask us to do we’re going to do it. This is my senior year and I want to finish on a high note and restore some pride to a school that has done so much for me.”
The new offensive system installed in the offseason has renewed enthusiasm about the Army football team, Dace included.
“For my first three years, we didn’t really have a lot of success on offense,” said Dace. “I feel like what we’re running now is definitely a better fit for the personnel we have. We were down a bit in the offseason coming off a bad loss to Navy. Coach (Stan) Brock came to us and said they were going to do some research and look at some different offensive choices. When Coach Brock told us it would be an option-based attack, my eyes got big. I trust the coaching staff and was excited to learn. I was like a freshman since I didn’t know the lingo but it’s a real good fit and easy to pick up.”
Instead of the pro-style offense run by the Black Knights in the past, Brock and his staff have installed an option-based attack. Fans used to see No. 28 running between the tackle and the guard might have to pay closer attention to the roles of running backs in this offense.
Dace, a 5-foot-6, 187-pounder that was given the nickname “Tow Truck” by his teammates, will play an important role this season, along with the other running backs.
Carrying the ball, running deep routes, isolation blocks on linebackers, making read blocks on an option play, sealing the cornerback or being a choice on an option play are all in the cards in 2008 and that’s just how Dace wants it.
“From a running backs’ standpoint, the offense has changed drastically,” said Dace. “There is a lot of stuff going on and we’re a part of everything. We feel like if we play well as a unit, we will be a big part of the offense and have success. We like that kind of pressure.”
Dace has played well in big games. Last year in Baltimore, Md., he rushed a career-high 28 times for a career-best 104 yards against Navy. He became the first Army player in three years to run for over a 100 yards against the Midshipmen, but it didn’t matter.
“I honestly didn’t know I had rushed for 100 until a reporter brought it up,” said Dace. “The loss was heart-breaking. And, you can’t get excited about a loss.”
Now, with fellow senior Wesley McMahand as well as returning letterwinners Patrick Mealy, Jamal Robinson and Ian Smith, the running backs are looking for more wins.
“All of the running backs get along very well, it’s a tight group,” said Dace. “We have an interesting relationship. We’re best friends on and off the field. We go out and compete really hard and try to beat each other out for a job but at the end of the day, we’re friends. We don’t have a problem helping each other out with blocking assignments or techniques or whatever it takes to help the team win. We look at ourselves as a group of brothers that will do anything for each other.”
The team chemistry isn’t just within the corps of running backs. The senior class has worked tirelessly on the new offense and on finding replacements at several defensive positions following graduation losses.
“Every year, we go into the season talking about winning games, beating Navy and winning the Commander in Chief’s Trophy,” said Dace. “This year, coach Brock came into preseason camp and said the focus is on us, on making Army better. We put the focus on the individual level. If you work every day to make yourself better, everything else will fall into place. We looked at ourselves as individuals and worked to get better every day. If you work hard, try to improve every day and carry out your assignments, the wins will come.
“It’s all about winning. That’s all that matters. Go out every week and leave everything on the field. That’s why everyone around here is so excited. The opportunity to win games is out there, we just have to seize the moment and get what’s ours.”
Dace caught the attention of the coaching staff in the spring prior to his junior season. A shifty runner with explosive bouts of speed, he was named the team’s most improved offensive performer. His ability to break tackles as well as his route-running and consistent approach earned him more playing time.
He played in two games in 2006 during his sophomore season, running 10 times for 30 yards.
In his junior season, Dace played in all 12 games and started both the Navy and Georgia Tech contests. He carried 97 times for 330 yards and scored his first collegiate touchdown against Tulsa.
“He’s so competitive,” said Stan Brock. “He has good speed. He has quickness and a great change of direction. But more than anything, it’s his ability to compete. He wants it bad and studies very hard and works very hard at getting better.”
Dace led the team in rushing as a junior and showed some versatility with 10 catches for 47 yards and a 10-yard touchdown against Central Michigan.
Following a freshman season in which he did not play, Dace earned his first action in 2006 when he appeared in the Rice and VMI games. He made his collegiate debut against Rice where he rushed for 11 yards on three carries. Against the Keydets, he rushed seven times for 19 yards, including a nine-yard gain.
Dace continued his work in the weight room and film room following his sophomore year and the extra effort paid dividends when his role was expanded in 2007. He is now atop the depth chart at running back as a senior.
“When he got here, there were a lot of good players in the room,” said running backs coach Tucker Waugh. “The thing I noticed about Tony is that football is very important to him. Making this team successful is extremely important him. As a result, he has worked very hard in practice and earned this opportunity.
“There is no question about it, his worth ethic is what makes him successful,” continued Waugh. “In my opinion, he works as hard as anyone on our football team. He is a good player but the fact that he works so hard puts him in the situation where he can become great.”
Dace isn’t from a military family and didn’t know a lot about what West Point had to offer until he visited. Then, he saw a group of men who worked hard on and off the field. He looked at some other schools, mainly in his home state of Florida but decided the U.S. Military Academy was too good to pass up.
“I wanted to be different,” explained Dace. “This was the place to come to challenge yourself physically, mentally and academically and then go out on the field and perform. I am very glad I made the decision to come here. I don’t have any regrets. I made a great decision to come here and be a part of the Academy and the Army football team.”
Dace hasn’t thought a lot about the future. Soon, he will choose his branch and post and utilize his Engineering Management major. He will graduate in May as a second lieutenant and serve his country to the best of his ability. After that, who knows? A coaching position is certainly a chance to give back to a game he loves and plays with a great deal of passion. Just like giving back wins to an Academy that has so well prepared him for the future.
Ryan Yanoshak is the Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.