People ask me all the time why Navy is always ranked so low in the recruiting websites of popular websites like Scout.com. According to the Scout rankings, Navy finished 99th in the country in recruiting in 2012, a full 19 positions behind rival Air Force. Forgetting for a moment that recruiting rankings are far from an indicator of future success (especially outside of the Top 25), it’s important to understand how the rankings are calculated. For Scout, it’s a formula of averaging the “star” rakings of only the top 25 players each team “signs.” But because the Naval Academy is not limited by the scholarship limitations of other Division 1 Football Subdivision institutions, this ranking fails to account for roughly 25 other players Navy will bring in with a given recruiting class.
Likewise, rankings are subject to what Scout describes as a “grassroots” style of evaluation. All this means is that there are limitations to how many players can be evaluated. While evaluation of the truly outstanding athletes at the prep level has gotten more exact over the last decade, the fact remains that there are just a lot of prospects out there who are never seen by the so called “experts,” who increasingly face budget crunches in their ability to visit and judge prospects on a truly national level. And if you’re not seen as a prospect, then you’re not evaluated and ranked.
All that being said, even if a more scientific ranking was put together, Navy wouldn’t exactly be vaulting much higher. The Midshipmen are signing more players with other FBS offers than they were, say, ten years ago, but the majority of Navy prospects coming into the class of 2012 will have chosen Navy over the likes of Football Bowl Championship (FCS) programs.
Not exactly a formula of recruiting to build for a future of Big East play, but not necessarily a death sentence, either. From my conversations with Navy coaches, current players, and commits from the high school class of 2012, I’ve picked up a few trends of the trail this year. What I’ve taken away are five major themes which not only confirm Navy held its own against rivals Army and Air Force on the trail, but also hint to a future in which recruiting will pick up in future seasons.
Location, Location, Location: One of the myths of service academy recruiting is that all three academies are the same. They’re not. Aside from offering different avenues of postgraduate service and vastly different settings for exposure on the field, their locations all play a key role in determining whether a recruit is more receptive to one over another. Take Navy. Situated in Annapolis, it offers both a “college town” feel, as well as access to two major metropolitan areas. For recruits in the Southeast United States – the home to some of the nation’s best prep football programs – it remains the closest service academy option to home, and represents an incentive for recruits looking to play in front of family and friends. But the real location kicker? Navy will be a member of a nationwide Big East conference which will feature schools in Florida (USF, UCF), Texas (SMU, Houston), the Northeast (Rutgers, UConn), and the Southeast (Louisville, Memphis). From my conversation with recruits this year, it’s clear that many are looking forward to playing in front of family and friends and traveling to their home states once or twice each season. Will this dynamic change with news that the Mountain West and Conference USA are creating a coast-to-coast conference? It could, but for the time being, the uncertainty of the logistics of such a league, and the current BCS agreement the Big East has, works in Navy’s favor.
An Unmatched Rivalry: Many people ask me if Navy has any distinct advantages over Air Force when it comes to recruiting. There are a couple, but foremost among these is the Army-Navy game. It’s just an unmatched game in terms of exposure and environment that no other rivalry – much less Mountain West rivalry – can lay claim to. “I’ve been to the Red River Rivalry and, speaking of a rivalry game, I really think the Army-Navy game is really the biggest rivalry game ever in the U.S,” said Navy commit Garrett Gandy of Boerne Champion (TX).
This past year’s game – which featured President Obama in attendance – seemed to hold special sway for a numbers of Navy recruits, including versatile Maryland athlete C.J. Williams.
“Right when I left that Army-Navy game I knew I wanted to go to Navy,” Williams told me. How many recruits said similar things to me about going to the Navy-Air Force game? You guessed it; none.
National Exposure: I think some people still underestimate how big of a deal it can be to present a recruit with the opportunity to play on national television every week. This is something Navy has been able to do and will continue to be able to do as a member of the Big East. At least two Navy games will always be on broadcast television (Notre Dame and Army) while the future deal with the Big East gives Navy an in with ESPN’s brand – an especially powerful force we’ve seen cultivated over the last half decade. I’ve found this particular attraction to be especially pertinent for recruits weighing the pros and cons of attending Navy over that of a higher level FCS school. Not only that, but having the chance to prove themselves against schools in the Top 25 on a yearly basis is a huge incentive for recruits facing that decision. Again, this is a dynamic which could change if the new MWC/C-USA merger secures a favorable television deal with ESPN, but pending the disappointing exposure the MTN network has gotten over the past five seasons, it’s a factor which has worked in Navy’s favor.
Coaches Count: Is there any doubt that Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo is truly one of the best recruiters and motivators in the game today? If there is, there shouldn’t be. Niumatalolo and his staff connect with recruits, and make them feel wanted and welcome better than any most staffs in the country. Once more, they do it at a place that doesn’t always stand out as the ideal college destination. Just ask 3-star recruit Jalen Boyd, who was all set to go to Illinois until a coaching change saw the Illini cool off. That’s when Niumatalolo and defensive coordinator Buddy Green stepped up, helping him realize a service academy might not be such a crazy concept. “I was planning on committing to Illinois, but when they had their coaching change that’s when Air Force and Navy jumped on,” Boyd said.
Brotherhood Trumps All:Navy’s ace in the hole when it comes to recruiting? It’s cliché for Navy fans and hard to understand for outsiders, but it’s ‘The Brotherhood.’ The bond between Navy football players on the field and in their daily lives is just beyond classification, and speaks volumes to how well the current Navy players interact with recruits on their visits. Every single Navy commit I have spoken to this offseason indicated this bond was one of the top three reasons they chose to attend Navy, and all indicated it was stronger than any other bond they felt between players at other schools (including Air Force) they had offers from.
“I took a good look at Air Force and visited it,” Navy commit John Ferguson explained. “They’re both great schools, but I just feel Navy has a little something more special there as far as tradition and the ‘Brotherhood.’”
Ferguson, an offensive lineman who also turned down Oregon State to head to Navy, continued, “At Air Force nobody talked to me about them having a ‘brotherhood’ or anything like that. The bonds between the players seem tighter at Navy.”
Will those bonds be strong enough to sustain Navy’s new class of players and invite more highly touted recruits to Annapolis when the Mids take to the Big East in 2015? With conferences realignment unfolding by the day and recruit subject to rumors and hypotheticals, it’s tough to say. But for 2012, at least, Navy held its own against Air Force, bested Army, and made a statement that the program isn’t sliding when it comes to attracting players. After its first losing season since 2002, I’d say accomplishing that feat is nothing short of a positive step forward.