Service academies face recruiting challenges

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For most every cadet playing football at one of the three service academies, a fourth-quarter drive deep in an opponent's territory will not be the most hostile environment they experience.
In wartime, recruiting teenagers to play at Army, Navy or Air Force adds to the challenge for coaches. But like their brothers in the Marines, there are ways to improvise, adapt and overcome.
Army head coach Rich Ellerson said that the threat of danger must be addressed early.
"The idea of serving your country and the profession of arms needs to be part of the discussion," he said. "West Point is unique and absolutely not for everyone but when we identify a young man with the character, intellect and ability, it becomes easier.
"This institution is so well defined that it stands in such contrast to every other program -- including the other service academies -- (because) we often know whether or not it will be a fit for someone we identify much earlier than other places.
"That uniqueness often makes this job easier than when I was at Arizona. There is only one Army offering what we can offer (and) there are now 12 schools in that conference, so how do those programs separate?"
Ellerson's optimism has not changed the fact that the program has inherent disadvantages and is often not competing for elite athletes, but asked to play top-level programs on an annual basis. The Army football program has not had a recruiting class ranked above No. 111 nationally during his tenure.
His Army record is 17-31, including 3-9 and 2-10 the past two seasons, but still believes the program is ready to take its next step.
"When you step away from the record, you can see organic growth," Ellerson said. "Our center of gravity is getting into our junior and senior class this year and that is important. It was hard for us to crack the code our first few years here and we had to rely on younger players. With the demands off the field, that was just too much."
Ken Niumatalolo has had more measured success while at Navy. He is 40-26 in five seasons, reaching a bowl game four times.
He has had recruiting classes ranked higher than the other two academies while finishing inside the top 95 each of the past two years.
"We feel like we have the components in place right now and we are going to stick with what has been working," Niumatolo said. "We don't want to get complacent and we recognize that it takes someone special to go to any service academy.
"While they are going to come here for different reasons they are still 17- and 18-year-olds. We have a nice locker room and weight room. We have to be up to par with other programs we recruit against even if we are not after typical players."
Niumatolo said players his assistants are targeting often hold offers from Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Stanford and Duke. He admits that for those programs, the players are likely backup choices but represent top-line prospects for the Naval Academy.
"Right off the bat, we are shaving guys off that we cannot even look at academically so we cross over with schools with similar standards," he said. "We are realistic, though. We are not going to be getting some guys with the athletic ability that are first choices for those schools. It isn't that we are recruiting against them, we just have similar identifiers.
"We are usually getting developmental guys: the safety that projects as an outside linebacker or the tight end we can move to tackle. Everyone can tell which players are going to USC, but we need to get the 6-3, 220-pound player that we think can get to 250 and keep his wheels."
While targeting players with upside, Niumatolo said some reaches lead to errors, which may set a mid-level program back multiple years on the depth chart.
The accelerated recruiting process -- which has now seen eighth-grade players receiving major FBS-level offers -- adds to the stumbling blocks.
"Our projects are getting early offers, now," Niumatolo said. "We want to be in the ballpark with the kids but you don't want to offer just to offer. With us being in the middle of the pack I think we are making more mistakes."
Ellerson said that the willingness for major programs to offer earlier has afforded his staff the chance to settle in to good situations.
"There is a real opportunity with everything moving up," he said. "There are kids that think if you don't have everything lined up with recruiting out of your sophomore or junior year, that you can't play at the next level and that isn't true.
"In the same respect, talking to a sophomore in high school about the military life, there just isn't a maturity level there to reflect on what that decision comes with and one that they shouldn't be asked to make. The longer we can make our evaluation process and the more mature candidate we can talk to, then the fewer mistakes we will make."
The lone commitment for the service academy programs belongs to Army as three-star offensive lineman Bryce Holland of Chandler (Ariz.) Hamilton made his pledge in mid-May.
Service academies are not limited to 25 signees like the rest of college football and each are allowed to have larger coaching staffs to help recruit nationally.
While most coaches will point to his own backyard as a must-sign talent pool, neither Ellerson nor Niumatolo has the luxury.
"We have to be organized," Niumatolo said. "Having 50 states makes it easier to find 30 guys that can help us win."
Ellerson said that the national footprint presents a chance to cast a wide net and added that it keeps the assistant coaches on their toes.
"We can't fall into a pattern and we have to stay light on our feet," he said.
"This is the preeminent leadership institution in the world and from Gen. MacArthur on down, athletics -- especially football -- has been emphasized. The reason we play here is for team building. Athletics is a leadership laboratory."
As each institution maintains its standards and tries to improve its on-field product, Ellerson sees light at the end of the tunnel.
"There is good news for the service academies," he said. "This is a generation of remarkable young men that (does) not want to hear how easy it is. They want to do something meaningful and while the Army is not the only way to do that, they can build a good life and make a difference here."
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