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December 8, 2012

Academy talent pool growing with the times

PHILADELPHIA -- On Saturday afternoon Lincoln Financial Field will house a couple hundred future Army, Navy and Marine Corps officers on the field with another 8,000 or so of their academy classmates supporting them from the stands for the 113th Army-Navy Game.

The players arrived at this point in life from a select group of prospects that Army coach Rich Ellerson and Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo recruited out of high school. But despite the recruiting limitations, there are at least anecdotal indications the pool is swelling a bit.

Prospects speaking with GoBlackKnights.com mention a desire to serve their country since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the ongoing terrorists threats on the nation. Army recruiting coordinator Tucker Waugh says he's noticed the increased patriotism. Army's first verbal commitment in the Class of 2013 was Patrick Joseph, an offensive lineman from Chander (Az.) Hamilton who turned down offers from Arizona State and Arizona.

"When people ask me about that, I tell them I am so impressed and so proud of these kids coming out of our high schools with their maturity and their desire to their serve their country," Waugh said. "We are in great shape with this next generation of young people."

In the 2012 season, Air Force (6-6) earned a sixth straight bowl berth and Navy (7-4) has a bowl berth again after an eight-year streak ended last season.

Army is only 2-9, but the Black Knights beat Air Force and are thus in position to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy by defeating Navy. Ellerson has been building his recruiting classes since arriving in 2009 to match the bowl success of Air Force and Navy.

"We want to be match up with the teams that are most similar to us," Ellerson said. "We feel like we are gaining on them, but we have to prove it on Saturday."

There are three primary reasons that limit the recruiting pool for academy football:

1) The athletes have to be talented enough to play Division I football;

2) They have to be bright enough to handle the academic load of a Ivy League-like education;

3) They must have a desire to serve their country with a five-year military commitment.

It's that third element that separates Army, Navy and Air Force from recruiting the players that choose Notre Dame, Stanford, Northwestern or Vanderbilt over football factories such as Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State or USC.

But many of those linemen competing for Notre Dame, Stanford, Northwestern and Vanderbilt -- all four schools are in bowl games, with Notre Dame playing for the BCS national championship -- don't fit the requirements of an academy recruit. There are military training requirements that shrink the pool even more.

To compensate for weight limitations, Army, Navy and Air Force play variations of the triple-option offense and attacking defenses reliant on linebackers and defensive backs.

"The style of play is consistent with what Army wants a soldier to look like," Ellerson said. "There are things in the direction of college football that are inconsistent with what West Point wants in a cadet or soldier. Our style of play on offense and defense doesn't get in the way of that."

Niumatalolo says the long economic downturn is another motivation recruits to take a closer look at the academies.

"People and parents are seeing us on TV and they recognize you get an Ivy League-education," Niumatalololo said. "If you are a high school football player, you want to play under the big lights. You come to the academy and you play at the highest level and you get your degree. There is a commitment to the service, but in this economy people recognize the value of a guaranteed job."

Calhoun, though, keeps it in perspective. He explains what a prospect says during a recruiting conversation can be much different from actually signing on the dotted line and then making it through the rigors of academy life.

"I think that pool is always going to be pretty small," Calhoun said. "I think it's easy to say in the 21st century that I might want to do that or for somebody to say I almost did that. When it gets right down to it, it's like coaching. Some guys will tell you they love coaching, but to be able to commit over a long haul, to commit to it for five to six years, all of the sudden they get icicles grow on their toes."

Calhoun wasn't referring to any specific players, but it should be noted Iowa's leading rusher in the 2012 season, Mark Weisman, left Air Force after one semester.

"You're looking for a rare, rare person to be able to be an intercollegiate athlete and play in a major conference while going to service academy," Calhoun said. "It is a unique young man or woman that commits to that path."


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