College football at our nation's service academies has been around almost as long as the game itself. Army West Point, Navy, and Air Force have rich college football histories that some fans may not be aware of. Army and Navy have won a combined four national championships, Navy is a three-time AAC West Division champion, while Air Force has three WAC titles. All three institutions have posted a combined 30-26-2 record in bowl games, and at least one has been ranked in the Top 25 each of the past two seasons. Despite the success that these schools have achieved through the years, one thing you don't hear mentioned about these players too often is the label "pro prospect."
For years, service academy players have had to fight the perceptions of lack of size (military requirements limit how big players can be), lack of skills (all three schools run some form of the triple-option which can limit certain positions), and then there's the matter of pending military service (which is required after graduation but can be deferred if athletes sign with a pro team). All three schools have sent a handful of players to the pros over time, but this isn't a consistent occurrence.
Hall of Famer Roger Staubach (Navy, 1963 Heisman Trophy winner, Super Bowl MVP) has become the standard-bearer for academy players, while current Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle, Alejandro Villanueva (Army, earned a Bronze Star as an Army Ranger), is a two-time Pro Bowler. Some other notable academy players in recent years include Navy fullback Kyle Eckel (won Super Bowl XLIV with the New Orleans Saints), Air Force defensive tackle Chad Hennings (posted 27.5 career sacks with the Dallas Cowboys from 1992-2000), and Navy linebacker Josh McNary (79 career tackles for both the Colts and Jaguars from 2013-17). Most recently, former Navy standout quarterback Keenan Reynolds (No. 19 jersey is retired, accumulated 8,560 yards of offense) was a sixth-round draft pick by Baltimore in 2016 and played in two games in Seattle in '18 before taking part in the short-lived reboot of the XFL earlier this year.
Another thing factor that potentially benefits any service academy players in their quest to get a shot at professional football is the expansion of cable and satellite TV, streaming services, and social media, increase the weekly exposure they get. Not only does CBS Sports Network label itself as "The Home for Armed Forces Football", but the Army-Navy game is an annual must-see event that CBS rolls out the red carpet for.
Unfortunately, with the XFL first suspending its season and then declaring bankruptcy a few weeks ago, that just leaves the NFL or Canadian Football League as possible options for any service academy players that wish to continue their career. So with that in mind, here are a few such players that probably won't get drafted this weekend but could possibly get a shot with an NFL team as an undrafted free agent (UDFA) or an invite to a team's training camp.
Malcolm Perry, QB, Navy
The NFL had Kordell "Slash" Stewart, and Perry served in that same capacity for the Midshipmen from 2016 to '19. Perry's multi-talented skill set made it very difficult for opposing defenses to play against Navy every week. When all was said and done, however, Perry was more effective as a ball carrier (4,359 rush yards, 470 receiving yards, 491 kick return yards, 43 total TDs) then he was a passer (1,311 yards, 10 TDs). Perry's versatility could help him find a home in the NFL. He's listed on NFL.com as a WR as the only service academy player who officially entered the draft. Perry will need to catch a few breaks along the way, but Reynolds has shown that there's a path for former Navy quarterbacks to earn a spot on an NFL roster.
Kelvin Hopkins, QB, Army
Most quarterbacks running the option at the collegiate level are usually moved to another position in the pros, typically running back or wide receiver. The aforementioned Reynolds, who played wide receiver for the Seattle Dragons during the XFL's brief run earlier this year, is the most recent example of this.
For his part, Hopkins certainly put together an impressive resume as the focal point of the Black Knights' offense. Hopkins finished his career 10th in rushing touchdowns in Army's history with 24 thanks to a single-season record of 17 in 2018. But the North Carolina native proved that he also could throw when the opportunity arose. His numbers won't jump off of the page, but that's more indicative of being in a run-heavy offense. He still did enough with his arm to make sure his name appears prominently throughout the record book for those categories as well.
While a position change seems a given (some draft sites list him as an RB prospect) for Hopkins, his athleticism along with his experience as a running quarterback should help him make the transition if given the opportunity.
Connor Slomka, FB, Army
Slomka was quite the complementary option behind Hopkins in the Black Knights' offense. During his time at West Point, Slomka ran the ball 274 times for 1,208 yards and 17 touchdowns. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry, as his low center of gravity and strength made it difficult to bring him down at times. He also knows what it takes to block and while he never caught a pass for Army, his combination of speed and power could benefit him in trying to establish himself on the next level. Fullbacks are becoming rarer in the NFL, but if Slomka can prove himself as a pass catcher, and perhaps assert himself in a special teams role, he may be someone a team could use in certain situations or formations.
Cole Christiansen, LB, Army
He was a tackling machine during his four years playing for the Black Knights. He finished with 275 stops in his career, including 20.5 tackles for loss and was part of a defense that finished 30th nationally in yards allowed per game last season. Christiansen held his own against both the run and the pass, he can move sideline to sideline, and with his speed and nose for the ball, he can seemingly fit in any defensive package. His lack of size (6-2, 225) will be something he will need to overcome but he's sure to get high marks for his character and leadership skills.
Kyle Johnson, LB, Air Force
In just three seasons for the Falcons, Johnson totaled 157 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and scored two defensive touchdowns. He played against a variety of different offenses in the Mountain West and coming from the Air Force Academy, it shouldn't take long for him to learn an NFL playbook, although size (6-0, 220) could be an obstacle for him as well.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Malcolm Perry photo courtesy of navysports.com)