If you frequent Against All Enemies, you’ve probably realized we are doing top 10 lists of pretty much all of the positions. Personally, I would have liked to do something less contentious - maybe a top 10 ranking of Oreo flavors or something, but with sports being on lockdown, there’s no better time to create some discussion.
Today, I have been charged with picking the top 10 service academy DB’s of all time. It’s tough to do considering how the game of football has changed in the last 150 years, as well as how the athletes trained and were recruited. It was absolutely not uncommon to see athletes show up to an Academy, play football for the first time as a freshman, then end up being an All American by senior year. Today, that’s more or less out of the question, save for the odd rugby or soccer player who ends up as a kicker in the NFL.
My methodology was pretty loose in this list. Had I gone strictly based on stats, we would end up with only players from the last 30 years or so, and comparing players from the 1950’s and today is really apples and oranges. Yet, there were great DBs throughout the last century. I compiled a list of players who may not hold a candle to players of today in matchups, but were still instrumental to successes like Red Blaik’s multiple undefeated seasons at West Point in the 1940’s.
Is my methodology of broad stroke picks a cop out to deflect criticism? Kinda. But I had a lot of fun doing a deep dive into the history of service academy football and I think you will see that the stories of these players across generations makes this ranking a really difficult task.
10. Caleb Campbell - Army - 2008
This may be kind of cheating, as Caleb Campbell technically played ‘whip,’ for the majority of his career, but he also played as a strong safety. Whether or not you would agree that he is a true DB, or more of an outside linebacker, Caleb Campbell earns his spot on the list because he was really good. He came out of the gate as a big producer for Army, in part thanks to a year at USMA’s prep school, but he was named to the C-USA All Freshman Team. As a freshman, he ranked fifth on the team with 54 tackles, 48 of which came in the final seven games of the season. As a sophomore, he was a starter for the entire season and was named team MVP, along with RB Carlton Jones. He ranked ninth in the country with five interceptions. He unfortunately suffered injuries in his junior and spring season, but he was named captain of the team as a senior and had an impressive 97 total tackles, three forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. Campbell was also one of the few Army players to have been drafted in the NFL, and he was selected in the seventh round in the 2008 draft. He spent the majority of his NFL career on practice squads, but saw some action with the Detroit Lions. While placing Caleb Campbell on this list may be contentious, you have to remember that he played in a very down era of Army football. He played through 2-9, 4-7, 3-9, and 3-9 seasons, but was still able to make a big impact on the defense.
9. Blake Carter - Navy - 2010
Up next on the list is a player that did not receive the credit he deserved over his career. He didn’t see much action as a plebe, but he managed to rack up 140 tackles over his career, including five at a loss of yards. He was the definition of a clutch player, and was a thorn in the side of service academy rivals. In the 2008 game against Air Force, he made an interception, blocked a kick that led to a touchdown, and recovered a blocked kick which he returned for a touchdown. That same year, he made five solo tackles against Army in the Mids’ win 34-0 to help secure the Commander in Chief’s trophy. His best career performance was in Navy’s 23-21 upset over Notre Dame, where he tallied nine tackles and two end zone pass breakups, and he lined up against Golden Tate and Michael Floyd the entire game. Blake sadly passed away in 2014 at the age of 27, but he left a great legacy at Navy during years of success with incredibly difficult schedules.
8. Reggie Rembert - Air Force - 2011
Reggie Rembert was one of those players who I believe could have fit in to any defense in the country. He played all four years, totaled 179 tackles, forced five fumbles, and had three interceptions in each of his sophomore through senior seasons for a total of nine. He was a part of the defense that made it to a bowl game in each of his four years and he was named a first team All American by the American Football Coaches Association, alongside Cam Newton. He also ran the 100 meter and 200 meter on the track team at the Air Force Academy. His 4.37-40 time would have tied him for the second fastest DB in the 2013 NFL Combine, but the Air Force’s rules did not allow any wiggle room to play in the NFL with his service commitment.
7. Elijah Riley - Army - 2019
Elijah Riley is certainly one of the best DBs out of the service academies’ class of 2019 and probably one of the best of the decade. He’s played in a really interesting time of Army football. He played under Jeff Monken, with a 10-3 season in 2017, 11-2 in 2018, and an unfortunate 5-8 in 2019. Yet, he has been a consistent heartbeat of the defense throughout his entire tenure. He made 201 tackles and pulled in seven interceptions as a college player and has a very realistic chance of being drafted in the NFL this week.
6. Wyatt Middleton - Navy - 2011
The best way to sum up Wyatt Middleton is to note that he won the Roger Staubach Award, an honor given internally to the Navy football player who contributed most to the team’s success over his playing career. To Navy fans, Wyatt holds a legendary status as a mid, and for good reason. He saw the field in every game that Navy played over his four years and he capped off the 2010 season with a 98 yard touchdown on a fumble recovery off of Army quarterback Trent Steelman. He made 317 tackles, five interception, and eight fumble recoveries over his four years. He was an All-America candidate and was placed on the Lott Award watch list. I do wonder what could have been if Wyatt tried to make a run at the NFL. He’s done numerous interviews where he reiterates that he's happy with his Naval career without making a real attempt to play professionally, but he did have a private workout with the Cincinnati Bengals.
5. Weston Steelhammer - Air Force - 2017
Weston Steelhammer lived up to having one of the coolest names in football with an illustrious career as a player at Air Force, earning first-team Mountain West Honors three times. He actually started out as a two sport athlete, playing baseball at Air Force as well, but he ultimately gave it up to focus solely on football. The 6’2” safety totaled 227 tackles and reeled in an incredible 18 interceptions over his career, with three of those interceptions coming in Air Force’s 28-14 win over Boise State. As far as NFL hopes, Weston looked like he would have a strong chance of eventually suiting up to play on Sundays, but a DOD policy change in the week of the 2017 NFL draft flipped the script for players who had a chance of being drafted or picked up as a free agent. He continued to work towards a tryout in the subsequent years, but despite a rookie minicamp invite from the Eagles, nothing ever materialized. I believe that Weston Steelhammer was a victim of the circumstances, and much like Jalen Rowell, the uncertain DOD policies regarding playing in the NFL spooked teams out of giving him a shot. Still, we have memories of one of the best service academy DBs of the modern era.
4. Mike McElrath - Army -1993
While we aren’t into super old DBs of yesteryear that I promised, Mike McElrath comes from a very different era of college football than today. He was inducted into the Army West Point Hall of Fame in 2010 and still remains as Army’s career leader in tackles with 436. He is tied for second in interceptions with 10 over the course of his career. He was a three time All-East player and was named third-team All-American by Football News.
3. Carlton McDonald - Air Force - 1993
On this list, Carlton McDonald is probably the player that I most wish I could have seen play in person. He sported a tucked jersey way before Ezekiel Eilliott ever did and his on field style looked more like he could have played in the glory days at The U than a service academy. He was a consensus All-American in 1992, was selected as the WAC defensive player of the year in 1991 and 1992, and finished second in voting for the 1992 Thorpe Award behind first round draft pick Deon Figures. Notably, he had two interceptions, one of which was a pick-6 in the 1990 Liberty Bowl win over Ohio State.
2. Chet Moeller - Navy - 1976
Chet Moeller is one of the picks where we get into the older generation of college football. His class of play came down to the hard-hitting grit that used to be so prevalent in football. He was named the 1975 ECAC Player of the Year, and a First Team All-American. He was only the sixth Mid to be selected as an unanimous All-American. He racked up 275 tackles during his career, and 25 for a loss as a junior. He was a 2010 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame.
1. Scott Thomas - Air Force - 1986
Scott Thomas was the fourth Air Force football player to be named a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. He earned honors as a consensus All-American in 1985, and was the captain of the 12-1 Air Force team in 1985. He was the MVP of the 1985 Bluebonnet bowl, when Air Force beat Texas 24-16. Air Force finished that season 8th in the AP poll, the highest ranking the Falcons have ever had. He made 10 interceptions and had an outstanding career as a punt and kickoff returner as well. He also had an illustrious career as an Air Force pilot. His F-16 went down in 1991, during the Gulf War, and he evaded enemy forces for two hours before being rescued. He was elected into the Air Force Academy hall of fame in 2011. The combination of circumstances leads me to naming Scott Thomas as the number one pick. He was an elite player in an elite era of service academy football, and although he didn’t go on to an NFL career, he made the most of his time as a Falcon.
-Neal Starkey - Air Force - 1968
As team captain of “one of the least successful teams in AFA football history,” their words, not mine, Neal Starkey managed to be named the Playboy Magazine All-American in 1966.
-Shorty McWilliams - Army - Did Not Graduate
The only reason Shorty didn’t make the list is because he did not graduate. He played for Mississippi State in 1944, then played for West Point in 1945, and interestingly went back to Mississippi State for the rest of his college career. As a Black Knight, he was ranked 8th in Heisman voting and was a member of the 9-0 Army team that was named consensus national champions. Crazy times.
-Joe Bartos - Navy - 1949
Joe Bartos is a player who really piqued my historical interest. Maybe the statisticians weren’t as great back in the day, but I couldn’t find much in the way of actual stats. However, I know that his career was played on both sides of the ball as a running back and DB, and he was good enough to play on the Washington Redskins in the year of 1950 before he was called to serve in the Korean War.
I shuffled this list around, searched other possibilities, and racked my brain trying to rethink my methodology. Picking this list was like finding a needle in a haystack, comparing apples and oranges, and every other cliche phrase you can think of. What was really interesting was just seeing the juxtaposition between the players football and military careers. Some went on to have long military careers, others stayed in football as coaches, and some went on to do amazing things in the private sector. Although a case could be made for dozens of other players, these are the ones that stand out in the record books, the halls of fame, and all of our memories.