Coast Guard football team has little time for freshman orientation as opener nears
The Day, New London, Conn.
NEW LONDON, Conn. — It's not something head coach Bill George can draw up on paper.
He recruits players he thinks can fit into the model of a Coast Guard Academy cadet/football player, but even the most highly-touted freshman can get caught up in the physical demands of Swab Summer or overwhelmed by academics upon arrival.
"There's no big plan. It's all about who steps up," said George, beginning his 15th season with the Bears, of evaluating the freshmen. "Some people get asked to step up when they're 18; for some people it's not until they're 38.
"It's all about making it physically, who's adjusting, who's swallowed up by the intensity of the academy, who's stepping up when it's needed, who's going to get swallowed up by calculus and chemistry."
Coast Guard, which opens the season Saturday with a 700-mile round-trip haul to St. Lawrence in Canton, N.Y., features only seven returning starters. And with senior co-captain Mike Vitrano out indefinitely due to illness, that leaves a brand new starting five on the offensive line.
The Bears, then, will need some of those freshmen to play immediately.
Coast Guard's lineup features three freshman starters and 12 freshmen overall on the depth chart. The starters are right guard J.D. Dunaway (6-foot-1, 260 pounds), left tackle Jordan Hart (6-3, 240) and nose tackle Blake Bonifas (6-2, 235).
There are two freshman backups on the offensive line, as well, three on defense and four on special teams.
"They go from Swab Summer right into training camp, right into the preseason scrimmage, it's just never ending. They come to practice with a long academy day under their belt," said senior linebacker Nick Phillips, the Bears' other co-captain, of the freshmen's role.
"Just checking up on them, asking them 'How's everything going?' You try to tell them, 'This is your outlet.' When they first come, a lot of times all you'll talk about is all the stuff going on in Chase Hall (the academy's barracks). You try to tell them, 'Let's come here and talk about football. Let's have fun.'"
George said in the past the mentality has been to just get players into their sophomore seasons before bringing them into the mix.
Last year's graduating class of 20-plus cadets, however, left a number of holes. This year's senior class, conversely, is a small one. Only five seniors will start against St. Lawrence. That's forced George and his staff to force-feed a few more freshmen than is usual, especially on the offensive line.
"When you coach an older guy, you're correcting a mistake," George said. "When you're coaching a younger guy, you're teaching the whole concept of the play.
"But we don't have two locker rooms like Ohio State, where if you don't like the guys in one you can go to the other one. We're more like Noah's Ark, we have two of each kid. The freshmen are going to play. You've just got to get them ready."
Dunaway, from Virginia Beach, Va., played center last season at Ocean Lakes High School, where he was second team All-Beach District and was named to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper's list of top 50 high school senior football players, leading the team to a 14-1 record and a state championship appearance.
Hart was a defensive end at Massena Central (N.Y.) High School, recording 48 tackles and four sacks as a junior and 56 tackles, three sacks and three fumbles recoveries as a senior.
Bonifas, meanwhile, from Sterling Heights, Mich., played defensive end at Utica High, earning first team all-conference and second team all-county honors with 75 tackles, three sacks and three forced fumbles as a senior in 2011. He was a member of the Chieftan 1,000-pound lifting club (bench, squat and deadlift) and attended prep school at Georgia Military College before arriving at Coast Guard.
Coast Guard was 5-4 last season, 4-3 in the New England Football Conference.