It’s been two weeks since National Letter of Intent Signing Day, and college football fans around the country have spent the last several days either celebrating or lamenting their lists of incoming football recruits depending on what Rivals and Scout tell them to do. Navy fans aren’t all that different; we want to know what the future holds as much as anyone else. Signing day itself, though, doesn’t quite hold the same significance. Signing day is the first day that recruits are allowed to sign binding letters of intent under the NLI program. Once coaches receive a recruit’s signed letter committing them to the school, they’re allowed to talk about them. One exception to this is at the service academies, who don’t participate in the letter of intent program. Recruits are given certificates to sign at their high school’s signing day ceremonies, but unlike LOIs, they aren’t binding contracts. That’s why Navy won’t officially release its recruit list until I-Day. Not only that, but recruiting doesn’t end on signing day, either. The weekend or two after signing day are usually big recruiting weekends in Annapolis. And if another school didn’t fill all of its needs with its recruiting class, they can still go after service academy recruits. Signing day is more of a symbolic end to the recruiting season than a real one.
Whatever you call it, people want to know how well Navy did on the recruiting trail this year. Those of you who cling to star ratings are probably ecstatic. Navy rarely gets players rated higher than two stars, but this year’s crop of future Mids include several that carry a 3-star rating depending on the recruiting service. This is particularly true on defense, with players like Vinnie Mauro, Daniel Godkin, and Evan Palelei leading the way. Then again, if you’re like me, you think star ratings are a load of crap. So how can we tell if this recruiting class is any good? The truth is that we can’t. There’s no sure-fire way to tell how good a class is. We read all the press clippings and watch the highlight videos, but we can’t tell. Everyone was on some sort of all-district or all-state team. Everyone looks good in highlight reels. None of us are able to differentiate one all-star from another. Some try, but it’s kind of funny to see people break down the relative ability of players they’ve never seen before.
At Navy, the traditional barometer we have to measure the strength of a class is to see how the coaching staff did when competing head to head with the other service academies. That can be suspect, depending on where you get your information. There have been cases where a kid has said in some newspaper article or website profile that he had been offered a scholarship by Navy, but in reality the coaches had never heard of him. Even when they have been offered, that doesn’t tell us where a guy ranks on each team’s recruiting boards. Unlike most schools that can sign a maximum of 25 scholarships per class, service academies aren’t limited in how many players they can bring in. After all, everyone at the school is on scholarship, so “athletic scholarships” don’t really apply. Because of these limitations, most schools have to be more selective when making a scholarship offer. They might have a list of, say, 7 or 8 linebackers that they’re targeting, but only have the ability to actually offer a scholarship to 1 or 2 at a time. At the service academies, coaches can theoretically make an offer to all 8, provided that they’re given a green light on each recruit by the admissions office. This makes it hard to tell if one service academy “beats” another for a player. For example, if Navy received commitments from LBs 1-4 on their list, but Army got #5, would that really mean that Army “beat” Navy for that guy? Technically it would, I suppose, but not for practical purposes. What if a player is the #1 target at his position on Air Force’s list, but #4 on Navy’s? If he thinks he’ll have less competition for playing time at Air Force and commits there, is it really Navy’s loss? Probably not. That’s why it’s hard to take this stuff at face value without knowing any of the background. Some Navy fans might have been upset when Georgia defensive lineman Joseph Champaign made a signing day switcheroo, backing out of his verbal commitment to the Naval Academy and switching to Air Force; Champaign reportedly had offers to several I-A schools. But once you learned that it happened shortly after another Georgia defensive lineman, Jamel Dobbs, made a change of his own in choosing Navy over his previous verbal commitment to Tulane and reported offers from Maryland and Toledo, it all kind of made sense. Champaign’s switch didn’t seem like a very big deal anymore. It’s more than likely that Dobbs was just higher on Navy’s list.
In the end, perhaps the only way to tell how well Navy did in recruiting relative to the other service academies– other than using our own eyes four years later– is to take the coaches at their word. Even that can be questionable, since most coaches will always say that they’re happy with their incoming players. That hasn’t really been the case at Navy, though. Not that Coach Johnson or Coach Niumatalolo ever talked badly about their incoming recruits, but they’ve been very frank when discussing how well they were able to recruit against the other service academies. That is especially true for Johnson, who in his first season told the Foundation point-blank that he didn’t get a single player away from Air Force. He’d break down the numbers at the spring Foundation meeting each year. Last year, Coach Niumatalolo was very specific about which players got away, pointing out that there were three from west of the Mississippi that chose Air Force over Navy. Niumat was a bit more vague when discussing head-to-head results with Bill Wagner this year, saying only that he was “particularly pleased” with how he and his staff did. Could the lack of detail be an indication that things didn’t go quite as well this year? Maybe, I guess. We’ll see what he tells the Foundation later on. It’s hard to imagine that, after a 10-4 season that featured yet another CIC Trophy and wins over Notre Dame and Missouri, Navy wouldn’t still be the top dog on the service academy recruiting scene; but conventional wisdom only goes so far when kids are making decisions about so much more than just football. Fisher DeBerry used to tell recruits that if they went to the Naval Academy, their wives would all divorce them while they were on deployment. Even going into his final season in 2006, DeBerry and his staff were telling recruits that if they wanted nothing to do with war, then Air Force was the place for them. If most of the current staff played for DeBerry, and that pitch worked on them, why wouldn’t they be saying the same things? According to some interviews, it seems like they are:
“I want to do something in business and have a job that would allow me to live as normal as life as possible such as a ‘9-5’ type job — and that is available in the Air Force depending on your career field,” explained the defensive back, who made District 5A-19’s All-Academic team in 2009. “Also, in the Air Force I liked the fact that you get your choice of bases to go to and that you are more than likely going to get one of your top three choices.”
Sounds like more of the same, although if that’s the case one wonders how anyone ends up in Minot. But given the background of the Air Force graduates on their coaching staff– only Charlton Warren has significant operational experience– recruits have no reason to believe otherwise. The flip side to this is that recruits who are drawn to this kind of a pitch are more likely to end up leaving the academy anyway. That has actually been a problem for Air Force at times; they lost almost every quarterback they had at the prep school a few years ago. Their prep school basketball team actually had to cancel their season in 2008 because so many players left. If a player is likely to leave once they get a taste of military life, better they commit to Air Force than Navy.
Then again, maybe Air Force wasn’t even the main competition with this year’s class. The stereotypical service academy recruit is a player that gets a bunch of I-AA offers, but chooses Army, Navy, or Air Force for the chance to play I-A ball and to prove themselves. This group, though, features a lot of players that had other I-A offers. On top of the aforementioned Mauro, Godkin, Dobbs, and Palelei, Bill Wagner highlights defensive lineman Andrew Kinsella, who had offers from UTEP and SMU; linebacker Mike Huf, who reportedly had offers to Syracuse and Akron; safety Wave Ryder, who had previously committed to Utah State before switching to Navy; and Chris Mayes, another defensive lineman who had an offer from Middle Tennessee State. All these players, you’ll note, are on the defensive side of the ball. That’s good news. Because Navy’s offense is so different from what anyone else runs, they don’t necessarily have to recruit the same players that everyone else wants. Defense is a different story; it’s much more important to win those I-A recruiting battles on that side of the ball. These players, coupled with fewer losses from NAPS, would appear to make for as good a recruiting class as we’ve ever seen come I-Day.
Of course, I-Day is a long way away, and it’s unfair to put too much pressure on these players before they’ve even stepped on the field in a Navy uniform. Still, it’s hard not to feel good about the future. Well, except for the world ending in 2012 and all.