The Naval Academy plays the often cut-throat game of college football recruiting with a significant handicap.
First and foremost, Navy is looking for football players, but not necessarily the best football players. The Midshipmen search for athletes who will fit into their unique style of play, especially the triple option offense.
The Naval Academy only accepts student-athletes who have stellar high school grades and extra-curricular activities. They also must obtain a letter of recommendation from their congressman or senator, in addition to all the letters of recommendation a normal high school student would have.
After the Midshipmen have compiled a list of players who fit these criteria, they start to cut recruits based on their interest in serving in the United States Navy or Marine Corps after they graduate. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo said it’s difficult to hold recruits’ interest at this step in the process, as nearly all high school prospects have dreams of playing in the NFL.
Instead, they will serve a minimum of eight years as an officer in the Navy or the Marines. Don Yates, a military veteran who publishes the Army and Navy websites for Scout.com, said it feels more like 12 years, since daily life at Annapolis is similar to daily life on active duty.
Most of the players in Navy’s recruiting classes already have military backgrounds. However, Yates said a military background doesn’t necessarily guarantee a player will want to come to Navy. He said it depends on whether their parents, grandparents or other family members had a positive or negative experience in the military.
“I think the main thing [Navy] does is they’re showing these kids that, unlike other schools, they’re going to have a professional job waiting for them as a military officer when they graduate,” Yates said. “[Other schools] can sell a higher education or talk about other students who had successful careers, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have that same type of success as the Navy.”
To compensate, Navy recruits nationally, where a school such as Penn State mostly limits its recruiting to the Northeast states.
“It’s a tough sell, but at the same time, we go out and we recruit hard,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said. “We look under every rock, under every stone. We look through every door for any kind of kid we can find. [We try to] find kids that fit our scheme on both sides of the football and also good people all around.”
At the end of the day, Navy fields players who are often physically inferior to their opponents from a football perspective. The fact is they simply can’t dedicate enough time to football as a Penn State player can.
Brian Dohn, an eastern recruiting expert for Scout.com, said that a Navy student’s day is essentially booked from start to finish.
“Navy doesn’t have as much talent when you match up,” Dohn said. “And then there are so many other things they have to do as far as commitments go… They don’t have much time to just sit and relax and kind of kick it.”
Especially in the summer, the Nittany Lions spend more time in the weight room while the Midshipmen may have more responsibilities to the academy.
Jasper said some of Navy’s players are undersized, but they try to compensate with speed.
During the next several seasons, Penn State will face obstacles in its recruiting as Navy does year in and year out. Dragging reduced scholarships and four-year postseason ban in his wake, coach Bill O’Brien has resorted to alternative methods of recruitment.
However, Jasper said the Penn State and Navy recruiting situations are still very different because Navy has to weed out so many recruits for non-football related reasons.
“I think the quality of walk-ons that they’ll get will be higher than most places because people would love an opportunity to play for Penn State,” Niumatalolo added.
One of O’Brien’s strategies has been to focus on Penn State’s ability to make a player NFL-ready. Navy will never be able to make that pitch.
But Niumatalolo is confident in Navy’s recruiting process, which has given the Midshipmen competitive teams for the last decade — they reached a bowl game each year from 2003-2010.
The key, he said, is finding overlooked high school football players whose patriotism emanates on and off the field. The coach points them to the Navy, and to the Naval Academy.
“There’s enough great Americans that want to do that,” Niumatalolo said.