QA with Army Head Coach, Rich Ellerson - Part III

In Part Three of our pre-camp Q&A with Rich Ellerson, the Army Head Coach discusses the importance of finally taking down rivals Air Force and Navy, the 2012 goals, the young-seasoned defense and much more in our one-on-one with's publisher, Charles Grevious.
GBK: Clearly 2011 was a year of transition. That being said, what do you do feel like you didn't get accomplished last season in-spite of being inexperienced and young defensively, but yet seasoned offensively.
Ellerson: Well as I said, the first thing you have to deal with is the deficit in the turnover margin. We went from being the best team in the country to being one of the worse. There are all kinds of reasons why that might have happen. So we have to take that upon ourselves as a coaching staff and as players and how do we address that ... how do we make sure we never go back there again. We can't dismiss it and talk about injuries, youth, blah blah blah. We have to say okay given those circumstances again, how do we never find ourselves in that situation.
Defensively, I think part of the challenge in terms of take away part of it ... frankly the challenge in the defensive front. I think we continue to progress but we were frankly outmanned there. There are some physics involved in that and we wiped out on the interior d-line. Some of the guys we were counting on weren't here. Bobby (Kough) missed a turn, some guys got hurt and frankly we just didn't match up very well. The guys we were playing the lion share of the snaps at interior defensive line are now playing linebacker or playing defensive end ... they weren't really meant to be there {chuckles Ellerson}.
I think you will see that there will be a dramatic difference in the output on the defensive side of the ball as we mature in the defensive line. I like where we are in the second row. Obviously we are still very young with guys like Hayden Pierce and Geoffrey Bacon who were playing their first football last year. But we also got some players like Josh Jackson, Ty Shrader, Kyler Martin, Waverley Washington ... we've got some experience guys back there, Justin Trimble. There are some guys that have played a lot of football. Thomas Holloway .. we've got an experienced group back there. We've got some really explosive young talent in those lines. But the biggest difference will happen on the defensive front, but maybe as a football team.
The unit on our football team that has a chance to make the biggest difference is the defensive front.
If our offensive personnel can take care of the football like they can, have and will ... I mean if they are operators with our triple option ... our quarterback, our fullback, our halfback. If they are operating and doing those things right and our defensive line evolves as I expect it to that will be the big stories. We are much better upfront on defense, we're taking care of the football on offense and the scoreboard is starting to look right.
GBK: Coach, staying with the defense for the moment. Who are the players that you are looking to step up or need to have them step and be difference makers this summer/season?
Ellerson: You talk about Bobby Kough and Richard Glover and Joe Drummond and Mike Ugenyi and Shane Finnane ... those five guys come out of training camp and ideally we want three defensive tackles out of that group of five guys that can go. I think Bobby Kough and Joe Drummond and Mike Ugenyi have all kinds of upside. Richard Glover is one of those sawed off guys, as is Shane Finnane, they are two sawed off guys that can really play the game. They are a little bit standing in the hole even for us, but they are really good football players. The other guys, Mike, Joe and Bobby ... there's some really good football players there.
That allows Brian Zalneraitis to move to defensive and you say Jarrett Mackey joins Zach Watts who as the season went on, Zach was playing that position as well as we've seen it played here. So, Brian and Jarrett and Zach are three experienced guys playing the defensive end positions. Now the Bandit position, the flex guy ... Nate Combs you know. A healthy Nate Combs brings a lot of expectations with him, with some really gifted guys like Corey Watts, Julian Holloway ... you'll see a young guy in there somewhere.
That's the best I've felt about how the young defensive line as have in awhile. The athleticism and the physical maturity to go along with it.
GBK: Simply put Coach, what would like to see happen during summer practice ... what is your goal?
Ellerson: He have to bond our football team. That's first and foremost. And we have to come out of this training camp experience as not a bunch of guys that don't dress the same, same barber, but we are an outfit - we are a brotherhood. That is job number one. Beyond that, the fundamentals associated with the football. Both sides of the ball. We have standards associated with the turnover battle, we have standards associated with our effort, we have standards associated with our situational presence. From a coach's standpoint, those are my three areas.
I'm going to hold the lines to those standards and I'm the standard bearer. What we are going to be offensively, we are a triple offensive football team ... we double eagle flex on defense and that could mean a lot of things. But beyond that, the standard that needs to come out of training camp is associated with the turnover battle, with the effort and with that situational presence.
In other words, you talk about the mental game in those critical situations -- putting our guys throughout training camp into those box situations where all those skills become relevant and are implemented appropriately, if that makes sense.
Now that means different things to the offense and to the defense and what it means to the special teams. Then of course, all the way down to the left guard. You know, "hey coach, how do I do that." So it gets very very specific the closer you get to who's hands are on the ground.
From my overview, we are going to bond our team, we are going to achieve the standard associated with the football ... taking it away on defense and possessing it on offense, a standard of effort -- what full speed effort looks like and then situational presence.
GBK: How big is getting an Air Force and Navy win was for the team in 2012?
Ellerson: Obviously that would be huge. We haven't done that in awhile here. I think that's one of those things to the guys that are on the team and in the program that's a tangible expectation. It's not a boy I hope, I got my fingers crossed or I wish we could do that.
I think to our guys, especially the guys that have been with us for awhile, that's something that they see as an achievable objective. That's not a dream, that's not a hope, it's something that's obviously going to be difficult. You know, academy football is good football right now and the best maybe it's been in a generation in a half in terms of all three programs and so we need to join that crowd consistently.
I think that the people that are paying attention to us .... that's their expectation that we are right in there and that's certainly how we feel about it. I'm not sure how our opponents feel about it {Ellerson chuckles}.
That Commander-In-Chef Trophy, well that's as hard a trophy to win as there is in the country. It is as hard a championship as there is. Those are three really good football programs that are well lead and I'm including myself in that and I'm not patting myself on the back. There are a lot of conference around the country that have 8 or 9 teams in a conference but there are only a few teams that are having it out and I think we are in that group.
GBK: Often fans only see Rich Ellerson as Army's head coach. Can you share with the fans what you do to unwind from the day to day of coaching at such a demanding institution?
Ellerson: {laughing} Charles, when I get around I will let you know. Right now, gosh, I said it before, I will do "that" when I retire. I'm having too much fun. This (coaching at West Point) is a tough challenge, but it's a great one and it's so much fun. And it's something we do as a family and frankly we do it as an extended family.
So, I'm going to stay engaged here and obviously I'm not worried about my scuba diving schedule right now {chuckles}. Right now, I want to take advantage of these days and moments and really throw myself at this challenge. As you know, I am really excited about some of things we were able to accomplish in this last lap coming out of this last experience in terms of the developmental equation that we've worked so hard at. In terms of how do you manage Division I football at West Point? Not just a service academy because this is a unique service academy, this is way different. And to come up with a formula that will allow our guys to do everything that their classmates are doing, to develop right along side them, to be front and present at all those things that we think of as defining the West Point journey and yet develop in a way physically that give them a chance on Saturday afternoon to be just as competitive as anybody in the country. And that's a real balancing act.
Just like we talked about recruiting earlier, obviously a very different proposition. Well that internal development, that internal schedule and how we manage our calendar year, not just the fall but the calendar year to keep that arrow up and yet do all the things that are expected of you has been a real challenge.
We think we've cracked that code. Our leadership, the Superintendent, the Commandant, Brigade Tactical Officer, the Dean, the Registrar, just an amazing group of folks and the effort to explore some of these ideas and facilitate those. You know, let's take a chance and see if those will work. So we are doing some things that maybe to the casual observer that don't look that draconian, but someone who's been at West Point you know how traditional somethings are and how regimented things can become. We are doing some things that the Brigade Tactical Officer spoke to group as revolutionary. I wouldn't go so far as to saying it's revolutionary, but I do think that it does make an awful lot of sense in terms of what we can expect from our guys from a week in and week out in terms of their development, their rest/recovery, their overall health, their achievement both on the football field and in the classroom, as well as in the company. I think we all benefit from the things we have done scheduling wise. So, we'll see ... it's a great adventure. And that frankly, that's what I do in my off time {laughing again} and I'm really excited what that may mean for the long term health of the program.
Our job is not just to have a good team, but our job is to have a good program. Consistently good and occasionally great. I think we have to have some of those structural adjustments that are in place that can give the program long legs. This where we recruit the right guys, develop in the right way and produce a good football team, and a lot of great young Army officers.