PHOTO: Andre Carter after one of his three sacks at Georgia State.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
Ask college football fans to name the best recruiter in the nation. You’ll hear the same answers — Alabama’s Nick Saban, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney or Ohio State’s Ryan Day. They annually bring in the top recruiting classes.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Those guys don’t have to work at finding talent.
The schools that are regular participants in the College Football Playoff benefit from 5-star and 4-star recruits funneling their way to them. The elite prospects limit their choices to a handful of schools they deem capable of winning a national title.
Now consider the leg work required of Army coach Jeff Monken to find hidden gems like outside linebacker Andre Carter II, a 2-star recruit playing as a 4-star in his junior season. Carter, a 6-foot-7, 250-pounder who was 6-6, 220 in high school, is tied for the national sack lead with 5.5 through Black Knights’ 4-0 start.
Army’s next game is against Ball State (1-3), a Mid-American Conference member, at 5 p.m. Saturday in Muncie, Indiana. Then, after a bye week, a Big Ten test against Wisconsin under the lights at 8 p.m. on Oct. 16 at Camp Randall Stadium.
“I was too small when I got here,” said Carter. “I I had to get stronger. I would say the difference this year has been experience and being able to get most of the reps in practice. And then in the games I’m playing with more confidence.”
Players such as Carter are the fruit of Monken and his staff growing a sturdy tree cable to compete for Top 25 rankings and having won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy three of the last four years. The Black Knights finished No. 19 in 2018 (11-2) and gained a No. 22 ranking last year (9-3) until losing to West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl. They don’t have votes in the AP (writers poll), but their 23 points in the USA Today (coaches) poll is equal to No. 36.
“We scour the country,” Monken said. “We collect names from high school coaches and recruiting services in every way possible. Literally 1,000s and 1,000s of names. We do approximately 10,000 evaluations a year for each recruiting class and then narrow it down to find the guys that can contribute to our program and also have the academic credentials and leadership qualities that make a candidate for West Point. It’s a painstaking process.”
It’s safe to assume Nick Saban didn’t evaluate 10,000 candidates to get down to his 2021 recruiting class that numbered five 5-stars, 17 4-stars and four 3-stars. He has more 5-stars than 3-stars, although 3-stars make up the bulk of most Power 5 programs.
Michigan hasn’t been a CFP participant, but the school’s tradition can also attract its share of 5-stars and 4-stars. One is senior Aiden Hutchinson, a 4-star who is tied with Carter for the national sack lead. The difference is Michigan can recruit Hutchinson as a 6-6, 265-pounder out of high school, while Army has to project putting on 30, 40 pounds on a prospect like Carter.
“Andre is a guy we were able to do an evaluation and got our hooks into him early in terms of his interest in West Point,” Monken said. “I think he was intrigued by the academy, the level of education and level of football that he can have here. There are not a lot of places in America you can get a top 25 education in the country and play top 25 football. We feel we can offer that here. He recognized that and we’re fortunate to have him here. He’s outstanding player and we’re excited to have him.”
Carter took circuitous route to West Point. It started as a tight end on the JV team at Temecula (Calif.) Vista Murietta. His family moved his junior year to Missouri City, Texas, but he found himself at Ridge Point High behind a 4-star tight end recruit.
As a senior in 2017, Carter suffered a season-ending back injury three games into the schedule. He considered a junior college until his mother learned about Cheshire Academy in Connecticut. The prep school not only put him on an academic path to West Point, Cheshire coach Dave Dykeman had him play both ways as a tight end and outside linebacker.
Carter’s defense caught Monken’s attention.
“He’s was a fairly long, thin guy,” Monken said. “So, it wasn’t like he was fully developed as an enormous physical specimen. He was a long athletic guy, a multi-sport guy. Like a lot of guys, he was a young man we felt we could develop. Our strength staff has done a tremendous job with the weight he’s gained and his strength. I think he’s going to get stronger and better as a football player.”
Carter practiced his freshman year at 225 pounds. He didn’t see any game action but kept developing his body.
As a sophomore, he was up to 260 pounds while playing 10 games primarily on third-down blitz packages. But by the end of the year, he started two games and had a tour-de-force performance in the ninth game, a 28-27 win over Georgia Southern. He recorded a sack, interception, forced fumble and blocked a kick.
But something didn’t feel right, and he shed 10 pounds for the 2021 season. He blamed “bad weight” related to the COVID-19 quarantine period when Cadets were sent home.
“The big thing I wanted work on this year was my conditioning and not having to come out,” Carter said. “I want to go hard every play. That’s hard to do running after the ball when the game is going fast.”
In the 2021 opener, he recorded 3.0 sacks in a 43-10 win at Georgia State, which was a 2.5-point favorite. Carter added 1.5 two weeks ago against Western Kentucky’s prolific passing attack and 1.0 last week against Miami of Ohio.
His plays have forced offenses to adjust, sliding sliding their protection package his way and having backs are chip him on their way into the pass pattern. He’s also become more of a technician as he learns counter moves with the increased attention.
“I’m really focused on having a plan and not just going out there,” he said. “I’m focused on what I need to do to rush the passer.”
Sometimes, though, there is irony to the recruiting coin nuances flipping the other way.
Monken, with leadership a primary evaluation box to check before extending an offer, doesn’t need to take a a chance on a kid’s character to attract a 4-star. Same with a 4-star kid feeling entitled as a top recruit in the nation. Remember the aforementioned highly ranked tight end ahead of Carter in high school?
His name was Mustapha Muhammad, a 4-star. He committed to Michigan, but he left the school after two unproductive seasons under a cloud of sexual assault charges. In a newspaper report, four women students accused him of forcing himself, harassing and stalking them. One woman said he justified forcing himself by saying he’s a Michigan football player.
Monken also doesn’t have worry about a junior having a big season leaving for the NFL or a junior seeking playing time entering the transfer portal. Once a Cadet enrolls as a junior, they’re committed to military service — two more in school, five more as an Army officer.
“I’m happy where I’m at,” Carter said. “I’m making the most of my opportunities here.”
Who had the better recruiting eye? Jeff Monken or Jim Harbaugh?
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