Attracting football players to enroll at West Point is different from the process at civilian universities that play Division One football. The demands of cadet life at the US Military Academy are not for everyone. Graduates have a commitment to serve at least five years in the US Army, with only small hopes that an exception will be granted to pursue opportunities to play in the NFL.
Many who decide to attend West Point have family members who have served in the military, such as Army junior defensive end Holt Zalneraitis, whose grandfather was a WWII bomber flight officer and prisoner of war.
Committing to training to be a cadet and football player at the US Military Academy means accepting the rigors that go with a demanding 24/7 military lifestyle, which begins by withstanding the first six weeks at Cadet Basic Training, known as "Beast Barracks." A strict demanding life is experienced during the plebe year that follows, along with the academic challenges of an Ivy League level educational institution with frequent testing. West Point is listed among the top academic colleges in the country.
Last week, I sat in on Army Head Coach Rich Ellerson's weekly radio show, hosted by Rich DeMarco, which airs on the Army Sports Network. The discussion turned to recruiting, with Coach Ellerson and Assistant Coach John Brock describing the process that the Army uses to canvass the country to find players who have both the ability to play Division One football and the desire to undertake the training that leads to the opportunity to serve the country as officers in the US Army.
For the past two seasons, the Black Knights have thrived with ball control option offense while struggled on defense after the graduation of key players from the 2010 Armed Forces Bowl winning team. Several young players have been forced into the lineup by injuries to veterans such as Nate Combs and Josh Jackson. The starting lineup for Army's game with Ball State this week lists eight freshmen and sophomores among the defensive starters. I asked Coach Ellerson about recruiting for the defense:
"There are some things about playing on the defensive side of the ball; there are fewer people in the population who can do those things."
Coach Ellerson went on to describe two positions on the defense he finds very hard to find players for:
"There are fewer guys who can play corner. That might be the most discriminating skill in all of athletics, guys who can can go out on the corner, have someone run straight at them while they run backwards and try to stay inside or on top, or outside. It is a skill-intensive, athletically demanding position and no one has too many of them; it is hard to find those guys."
The coach went on to say that the defensive line is another tough position to recruit players because of the dual role to rush the passer and stop the run:
"It is hard to find defensive linemen who can rush the passer. We have talked about how undersized we are relative to our opponent(s). To be able to be effective in that environment and physical enough to cancel gaps in the run game and still rush the passer, that is the most exhausting thing in the game of football, is rushing the passer."
Coach Ellerson went on to describe how defensive linemen are often less effective late in games:
"You see points in the fourth quarter, all of a sudden. They (the offense) didn't get any faster. They did not get smarter. They are not throwing the ball any better. What happens is the pass rush gets tired."
Army Assistant Coach John Brock described the technology tool that they use to spot and track prospects across the national recruiting effort that Army pursues. Each of the Black Knight assistant coaches have a recruiting section of the country to visit and work on. About half of the coaching staff travels on Thursdays and Fridays to their territories to visit high schools before heading back to the team for the game on Saturday.
Coach Brock described how time-consuming it can be to search the Internet to find information about thousands of prospects. Army has developed a data mining software program that searches for basic information about prospective players, including team rosters, performances in other sports (such as track team times) and even summer football camps that players may have participated in. The program cross references data to combine information from multiple sources to produce a printout of players sorted by recruiting territory. Coach Brock described the time saving value of this technology:
"This can be a starting point, a list; it can be 3,000 guys that play football and have some of these numbers that we are looking for. It cuts down time. The coaches don't have to worry about spending time getting that information; now they have the names in front of them and we can get transcripts and move on from there. For our coaches, it saves a lot of time on the front end in developing your suspect list and then narrowing that down to a prospect list with the information that we hold value."
Later in the program, Army head coach Rich Ellerson stated that the recruiting software Army uses was originally developed when he coached at Cal Poly, in California, a state with nearly 30 million people. The software allowed the staff to canvass for prospects as wide as they could. When the staff moved to West Point four years ago, they upgraded the software to cover the entire country for recruiting. Coach Ellerson commented:
"To canvass as many folks as possible, to find those guys who belong, that can play at this level, have the character and intellect to prosper at West Point and then be in for what we are, want the destination...and can play Division One football. They have that level of athleticism and explosiveness. Whenever you are looking at 17 year olds, the crystal ball is not always clear. Anything we can do to validate, what we think we see when we see them play the game."
The Black Knight coach continued to describe the process of evaluating thousands of prospects to find the very few who can play and meet the requirements of the Academy:
"We have this monstrous list of suspects that we reduce over time to prospects, then the prospects come to me and I convert them to recruits; it is a progression. To become a recruit, you have to have the intellect, character and player ability we are looking for. Once you find that guy who belongs here—we have 15-20 guys who visit every weekend—90 percent of those who come in are saying 'this is it, exactly.'"
It is a long way from tracking years of high school play, visits to homes, visits to West Point, possibly a year at the US Military Academy Prep School, R-Day, and "Beast Barracks" before a player may have a chance to run onto Blaik Field at Michie Stadium as a Black Knight. As far as measuring the process, Coach Ellerson commented:
"If we have done our evaluations correct upfront, we don't receive many no's."
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football for WVOX in New Rochelle, NY and Sons of the American Legion Radio. Facebook: Sons of the American Legion Radio. Twitter: SAL50NYradio.