Sept. 29, 2012
By Bob Socci
Through three games of his senior season, linebacker Keegan Wetzel made 17 tackles, about one for every credit hour he's averaged during his seven semesters at the Naval Academy.
Wetzel also recorded a sack in each contest, consistently earning high grades in his position meeting room, not unlike the scores he routinely achieves in the classroom.
Those things considered, Friday's announcement by the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame that Wetzel is one of the 50 semifinalists for the 2012 William V. Campbell Trophy seems an absolute no-brainer.
Named in honor of former Columbia head coach Bill Campbell, the award's criteria range from academic prowess to on-field performance, good citizenship to strong leadership. All of which are easily checked off when one simply skims over Wetzel's resume.
A systems engineering major and straight-A student, he came to Annapolis from Chicagoland after maxing out with an SAT score of 1600. And though Wetzel's overall grade-point average is an imperfect 3.89, he's reached the classroom ceiling with a 4.00 GPA in three different semesters.
As even the casual observer of major college athletics understands, the term student-athlete is grossly overstated. However, calling Wetzel a scholar-athlete is terribly understating who or what he is.
In his split-screen view of life as a collegian, he focuses on each area, academics and athletics, with remarkable clarity.
"When you're at school, you focus on school," he said in an interview for The Navy Sports Magazine radio show. "When you're at football, you focus on football. Being able to switch gears has always been a strong set for myself."
Wetzel makes time for others, and other things. But when it's time to hit the books, hit the weights or hit an opposing ballcarrier, it's no time to think about anything else.
"Allow time for making that call home to your Mom each week, to talk to your parents. Allow time to spend time with friends," Wetzel says. "But (know) when you have to get down to work, it's school time or football time.
"I really enjoy being an engineer. It's something I always dreamed of doing, so it's something that I was going to put my full effort forward to. I really enjoy being a systems engineer here at the Academy. But at the same time, I came here to play football as well. That's something I was going to put my full effort into."
Looking around him in Annapolis, Wetzel finds that he's not alone. Before any given play, he might stand alongside defensive linemen Wes Henderson, Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick, Travis Bridges and/or Collin Sturdivant; all of whom were 3.0-plus students last spring.
"There's a lot of guys on this team that work just as hard, or harder, than people who don't play a sport here," says Wetzel, whose top selections for service are to be a submariner or nuclear surface warfare officer. "A lot of times, I'll go through an entire semester or halfway through a semester before a teacher finds out I do play a sport.
"It's not the first thing I mention. I want them to know me as a student first, then an athlete. I think it's important for them to see that I do show up for class and do work like everybody else, and that playing a sport here doesn't affect that. I think that's true for a lot of guys here. It's kind of really under appreciated."
Though thanks to news like Friday's announcement by the NFF, it's becoming a more widely-known fact of Academy life.
"People are starting to realize that, `Hey, this guy plays on Saturdays. And he gets good grades. And there's a lot of guys (like him) out there.'"
GAME DAY VIEW: NAVY VS. SAN JOSE STATE
Today Wetzel's unit, which surrendered 70 points to Notre Dame and Penn State (each opponent also had a defensive score) before holding VMI to a field goal, faces yet another strenuous test.
The Spartans (3-1), who are averaging 35.0 points per game, seem to present even more problems than the Fighting Irish or Nittany Lions.
Their first-year quarterback David Fales, who started his career at Nevada before transferring to a junior college, is one of the nation's hottest passers, and works with one of its deepest receiving corps.
Last Saturday, in engineering a come-from-behind win at San Diego State, Fales completed his last 10 throws, while passing for 187 yards and three touchdowns in the 4th quarter alone. Overall, he owns a .720 completion rate and averages 280.8 yards a game, with nine TD's vs. two interceptions.
Fales' options in the air include three receivers who've each caught more than 1,000 yards worth of passes: Noel Grigsby, Chandler Jones and tight end Ryan Otten. In last year's 27-24 home victory over the Midshipmen, officially ending Navy's bid for a ninth straight bowl game appearance, those three Spartans combined for 20 receptions and 204 yards.
Also in that November encounter, then senior running back Brandon Rutley totaled 233 yards rushing and receiving. SJSU went into the contest ranked 108th in rushing offense, averaging 104.1 yards a game. But Rutley ran for 132 yards and two scores. He also made eight catches for 101 yards.
His successor in the backfield, De'Leon Eskridge led Minnesota in rushing in 2010, prior to transferring closer to his home in San Francisco. Eskridge had five career 100-yard performances as a Golden Gopher. As a Spartan he reached the end zone three times in a 45-13 rout of UC-Davis.
Head coach Mike MacIntyre and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren utilize that personnel well. In San Diego, their offensive attack featured 22 completions to tight ends or running backs; two positions that traditionally stir trouble for Navy's pass defense.
Regarding SJSU's defense under coordinator Kent Baer, it yielded only 280 yards in a season-opening 20-17 loss to Stanford (the Cardinal subsequently gained 417 yards in victory over USC).
Baer, who once coached a U.S. Navy team in Japan, is very familiar with the Mids' option offense from his time on Notre Dame's staff under Ty Willingham. Nonetheless, his defenses haven't necessarily stopped Navy.
Particularly last year, when the Mids more or less stopped themselves, failing to exploit overaggressiveness of Spartan safeties. Navy completed just 9-of-20 passes, including major misses on two opportunities for easy scores, as uncovered receivers streaked downfield. In once such instance, quarterback Kriss Proctor was eventually sacked and fumbled. With Trey Miller at quarterback, it's less likely the Spartans can "fire" their safeties toward the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
At the same time, though, the Mids were guilty of 10 turnovers in their first three games, including eight fumbles. SJSU has taken the ball away eight times in its four contests, after finishing fourth in the country with 33 turnovers forced in 2011. In fact, the Spartans tied for the national lead with 20 fumbles recovered a year ago.