Photo: James Nachtigal wraps up Oklahoma's elusive Kyler Murray
James Nachtigal explained how he surprised himself ending up at West Point. It’s unique to him, but Army players have told similar tales throughout Tucker Waugh's career pounding the recruiting trail as a Black Knights assistant coach.
“Coach Waugh showed up at my school one day,” said Nachtigal, Army’s leading tackler as a senior linebacker from Ft. Atkinson High in a small Wisconsin town. “I hadn’t heard anything from Army before that. My head coach (Steve Mahoney) calls me and says, ‘Army is here. They want to talk to you.’
“I said, ‘What are you talking about? I’m playing college football. I’m not joining the Army.’ ” I didn’t know much about West Point at the time, but coach Waugh introduced me to it. He’s a good guy; he kept in contact and kept recruiting me.”
It’s funny how many times I’ve heard Army players tell me their version of Tucker Waugh’s salesmanship.
Waugh, who coaches the running backs, is in his 17th season at West Point. When fifth-year Army coach Jeff Monken was hired to take over the program, Waugh was the only assistant retained from former head coach Rich Ellerson’s staff.
Some West Points recruits are an easy sell based on their family’s military background, but in a nation that relies on a volunteer Army, many recruits have little to no knowledge of service academy football among the Black Knights, Navy at Annapolis and Air Force at Colorado Springs.
It takes a recruiter with earnestness articulated to overcome a recruit's initial skepticism and ultimately prompt him to understand the advantages that are worth signing up for.
“I wish I could remember what he first told me,” Nachtigal said. “He sells the place well. He gets us to bite the bait.”
By the time Nachtigal took his recruiting trip to West Point, he was nearly convinced. Army offered him a chance to play Division I college football at an elite academic institution. He will graduate with a guaranteed job upon with a five-year military commitment as an officer. He will have no college loans debt, and the “no debt” category is no small factor in this era of high-priced college educations.
“The more I looked into the history of West Point, the people that have been here and the things that they have done, it was inspiring. It was an opportunity that was hard to pass up. It’s a once in a lifetime chance to do something.”
The demands a military academy lifestyle presents no doubt costs Army many of its recruiting targets despite Waugh’s presentations, but Nachtigal saw it as a challenge. Those are the ones that bite.
“You make a tougher choice that pays off in the long run,” Nachtigal said. “You have to pay your dues sometime. You pay them early enough and they pay off; there is a lot to that. I didn’t have disciplinary issues growing up – although my mom will probably tell you different – so I figured I could go with it.”
But before the West Point salesmanship, Waugh’s evaluation of Nachtigal’s football potential turned out to be on the money.
The 6-foot, 235-pounder led Army in tackles last year with 103 and tops the team at the midway point of this season with 36. That includes five sacks for 29 yards. In last week’s 52-3 win over San Jose State at Levi’s Stadium, the San Francisco 49ers’ home, he returned a fumble 52 yards for a touchdown.
“I toted the ball a few times,” Nachtigal said of his high school days as a wide receiver/linebacker. “It really felt good to have the ball back in my hands. My mom has been giving me the business for a long time now. After every game, she asks, ‘Where’s my defensive touchdown?’ She’s been bugging me about that since high school. It was nice, so maybe she’ll stop bugging me, but she probably will anyways.”
Nachtigal also committed to West Point with heady times for the football program on the horizon.
His sophomore year in 2016, Army ended a 14-year losing streak to Navy while posting an 8-5 record. It was the Black Knights’ first winning season since 2010 and only the second since 1996.
In 2017, Army swept Air Force and Navy to claim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 1996. The Black Knights’ 10-3 record was the first 10-win season since that same year of 1996 success.
So far the Black Knights are 4-2, with their only losses to Duke (5-1) and No. 9-ranked Oklahoma (5-1). Duke, which has 17 points among others in the AP poll to equal No. 34, beat Army in the opener. The Sooners, ranked No. 5 at the time, needed overtime to beat Army in Norman.
“I didn’t really think about it (the past losing seasons),” Nachtigal said. “Coach Monken made it clear we were going to win. He said, ‘Don’t think I’m putting up with anything other than that.’ I trusted him and he came through.”
That’s a long march from that first day Nachtigal heard from Tucker Waugh.
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Army (4-2) returns home to face Miami of Ohio (3-4) of the Mid-American Conference at noon Saturday at Michie Stadium.
Navy (2-4, 1-2 AAC West) is at home against Houston (5-1, 2-0 AAC West) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in an American Athletic Conference game.
Air Force (2-4, 0-3 MW Mountain) travels to UNLV (2-4, 0-2 MW Mountain) in a 10 p.m. ET Mountain West Conference game.
The Falcons have the early lead in the Commander-in-Chief’s series after beating Navy two weeks ago at home, 35-7.
Air Force plays Nov. 3 at Army and the Army-Navy Game is Dec. 8 in Philadelphia.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
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