Navy senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel doesn’t harbor outrageous sleep demands.
“Seven hours is all I really need,” he said.
The hard part is finding time to sleep that long.
Wetzel and his teammates are unlike other opponents who visit Beaver Stadium. The Midshipmen meet Penn State at 3:30 p.m. today.
Navy players rise before dawn for formation, major in challenging subjects such as mechanical engineering, oceanography and quantitative economics, prepare for major-college football games and often study until midnight.
“It gets tough,” said senior inside linebacker John Michael Nurthen, one of 13 Midshipmen from Pennsylvania. “You have to work on managing your time and maximizing it. It keeps things in perspective. Knowing you are a football player, you know you need to get your sleep. It’s huge being able to get your sleep.”
Ken Niumatalolo, Navy’s fifth-year head coach, operates his program different than other Division I coaches. To ensure they graduate in four years, players take anywhere from 15 to 21 credit hours per semester. Many Division I players soften their schedules in the fall so they are not taking more than 15 credit hours. The academic results are impressive as Navy’s 96 percent student-athlete graduation rate is tied for fourth highest among FBS schools.
Niumatalolo, though, must use practice time wisely. His wish-list includes one-hour position meetings and 2-hour, 30-minute practices. In reality, position meetings last 45 minutes and practices rarely exceed two hours.
“It’s mind-boggling to see what these guys go through,” said Niumatalolo, who has spent 15 years at Navy. “I went to Hawaii. I don’t think I could do what these guys do.”
Niumatalolo and his assistants weigh multiple factors when recruiting high school players. Navy’s rigid admission requirements, along with a five-year service commitment after graduation, prevent the staff from obtaining four- and five-star recruits.
Navy’s reputation allows the staff to recruit nationally. The roster features players from
24 states. Projected starters hail from 15 states.
“We feel across the country there are enough players that are bypassed because they are too short or a step too slow with good grades who want to play Division I football and get a great education,” Niumatalolo said.
“At first some kids are not really sure about the military side of it. But as they come, they realize it’s an opportunity to get a great education and serve your country.”
Nurthen, who is from Phoenixville, had two uncles who attended the academy and didn’t want his parents to pay for his education.
“I set a goal in high school to do whatever it took to go to school and not have to pay for it,” said Nurthen, a systems engineering major with a 3.23 GPA.
“The Naval Academy seemed aligned with everything I was looking for. The core values matched up with my character.”
The players Navy finds form one of the nation’s most disciplined teams. The Midshipmen ranked first among FBS programs in fewest penalties (2.3) and penalty yards (20) per game last season. Navy has led FBS teams in fewest penalties per game for five straight years.
Using a triple-option offense, which was installed by former head coach Paul Johnson, Navy has won 75 games since 2003. The program went 3-30 from 2000-02.
The victories are helping Navy, which produced Heisman Trophy winners Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach, raise its football profile. The program is joining the Big East Conference in 2015 and the Midshipmen opened this season against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland. Today marks the first time since 1974 they are visiting Beaver Stadium. Navy’s annual game against Army is considered one of college football’s marquee events.
Roadtrips are fascinating experiences. Some opposing crowds greet Navy players with “USA” chants and respectful applause. Other crowds aren’t as welcoming.
Wetzel said the Midshipmen relish rowdy atmopsheres such as they one they encountered at South Carolina last year.
“We have definitely been looked upon in more recent years as a serious opponent, which is good,” he said. “We don’t want the pity clap. We are a football team and we want to be treated like a football team.”
Niumatalolo said Navy has been using today’s game, which could be played before more than 95,000 fans, as a recruiting tool.
Penn State players are also anticipating the rare meeting between two of the sport’s storied programs.
“I’m very happy to play them,” Penn State senior cornerback Stephon Morris said. “We know the sacrifices they put forth for us. It’s definitely an honor to go against a Navy team.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.