Interview with Rich Ellerson: Part I

Recently,'s Jim Lawler spoke with Army head coach Rich Ellerson regarding the current state of the program. Ellerson gave Lawler an overview of this year's offense, defense, special teams and recruiting. Throughout the interview a few questions submitted by readers were asked. In part one of our interview we discuss coach Ellerson's current view of the program.

Last season Rich Ellerson restored winning football at West Point in his second season as head coach. The Army Black Knights finished the 2010 season with their first winning season since 1996. The season ended with a win over the SMU Mustangs in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl which was the first bowl win for program in 25 years. Last year was a breakthrough success when the team had its first winning season since 1996 and first bowl win since 1985. How do you feel about what the program accomplished last year and how can you build off that success?
Rich Ellerson: I think it raised the bar in terms of our expectations. We know that the approach we are taking both on and off the field is bearing fruit. We're doing things the right way. The Army football program's relationship with the larger institution is in sync. The style of play is consistent with who we are athletically. Who we are going to recruit, how we are going to develop physically and what the demands of their other responsibilities insist on. Our style of play is going to give us a chance. I think we validated those preconditions for success. Now obviously there are all kinds of things left to be done and all kinds of work to do. The other thing, I think, that is less obvious to the casual observer is how recruiting has been impacted. Those guys are just now starting to find the field that have been fully vetted by this coaching staff. They were recruited by this coaching staff. They were recruited to this offense and defense and this institutional vision. The freshman class, top to bottom, are those guys. The last freshman class we had, the guys that are yearlings this year, were still a mixture. [Ellerson recruits and Stan Brock's last recruiting class] This year's freshman class and the guys now at the prep school were brought to that same vision. We were really excited about those groups. We think the raw material that is coming to the front door are the right guys. Now we've got to retain those guys, develop those guys but every indication is that we're having great success in that regard. That bodes well for our future. Unlike the last two years, this senior class is rather light on impact players. Since service academy teams tend to be dominated by seniors, has the leadership dynamic changed at all with many of the more talented players and on the field leaders being underclassmen?
Rich Ellerson: It's going to be unique here in that respect because, as you said, we only have a handful of senior starters. We have some extraordinary leaders in our senior class. I think, as you say, the center of gravity on this football team will be between the yearlings [sophomores] and the cows [juniors], which, as you said, is traditionally not really what any program wants. It's especially true I think of a service academy where the demands of the freshman and sophomore year can impede maybe some of the physical maturity in some guys, not every guy. [Some underclassmen] clearly aren't going to develop or evolve as quickly physically as some of their contemporaries at a civilian institution. That's not universal however. Having said those two things we are going to be young, we know that, but we have some tremendous senior leadership. Those guys understand their role. They're competitive and they're sprinkled in across the board and they're not absent. There are senior starters and they're accomplished players and recognized leaders. They're salted in strategically across the line to add stability to that relative youthfulness that the team is going have. Last preseason when we had the chance to speak you were concerned about depth and actually used the word "fragile" because only the starters had game experience. This year there are at least four new starters on offense, eight on defense with little game experience. How do you feel about the team right now and how do you deal with that inexperience you mentioned?
Rich Ellerson: There is going to be inexperience. That's college football. Offensively, I was really pleased, you've heard me talk about this before, the transition in the offensive line, I thought was well handled. The guys that were stepping into those roles, that had a year under their belts, in preparing to play every week they played a little bit they didn't play a lot. They were preparing to play. They were getting the reps in practice. They were going through the mental exercises and that showed when we hit the field last spring. Those guys stepped in and assumed their roles, took off the rough edges quickly, and frankly I think we managed to keep that arrow moving up.

Defensively it's a little more problematic because, as you say, the turnover is more extreme and the relative youth. On offense we've replaced some graduating seniors with some rising juniors. What's happened more on defense is we're replacing those graduating seniors with some younger guys with yearlings [sophomores] and freshmen into the depth [chart]. You know a little bit less about those guys. You've haven't had them in practice as often. You haven't had the preparation for game weeks. They haven't, in every case, had a chance to play in the kicking game. So there is going to be a little bit more of a discovery process going on the defensive side of the ball as we get going. Having said that, I'm really encouraged by the athleticism of the youth on our football team. We are a more athletic team, we're a faster team but we are going to be small even by our own standards. We're not a big football team; we're used to that obviously. We know that is a byproduct of our systems on offense and defense. Even saying that, we are probably we're going to be playing some guys a year before we'd really like to and that will be obvious to guys looking at the two deep [depth chart]. Looking at the heights and weights you're saying," wait a minute, these guys aren't big enough." It may not be as obvious when you watch the game, when you see how effective they can be. You've been down this road before at Cal Poly. You took over a program where before you arrive had only one winning season in the previous six years. You had a winning record then the team took a step back the following year before you ran off six straight successful winning seasons that helped earn you the Army job. As we discussed, this Army team is young and inexperienced. From your coaching experience how do you keep this team from taking a step back from a preparation standpoint considering you have to break in so many new starters?
Rich Ellerson: Well, again I think it goes back to that internal leadership. I think we are really fortunate in that senior class. As you point out we don't have a ton of impact players in that [senior]class. We have some and they are strategically located and even those guys that are in the two deep, but aren't necessarily the first guy in the game, their playing an important role. We understand leadership at West Point. These guys [the seniors] are providing that stability and that focus. There is no doubt that we are going to have adversity in the course of a game. We are going to have some times when it doesn't look very good. That's not news. We know that's coming. Every football program in America is going to go through that. We know what that felt like last year. We know what it felt like to overcome it. We know what that path feels like and looks like. We have a template. We expect it's going to be tough, don't get me wrong, but this is going to be a fascinating ride with a relatively young football team with high expectations for itself especially with the early challenging schedule. Its great adventure but these guys can't wait. We're not surprised by any of this, we knew this was coming. We've prepared well. I think again that stability of our team's culture that these guys have absolutely embraced and with regard to the senior class helped create. That will bear fruit. When things get tough look for those guys to be the long pole in the tent we can hang onto and that youth will continue to improve and evolve and hold onto that expectation [of success] we fought so hard for two years to create. All service academy coaches are judged on their records against the other service academies. When you arrived it was obvious that Navy and Air Force were more talented, deeper and definitely faster. Now that you're going into year three of your tenure, after your second full recruiting class, how do you feel about where Army is in relation to them?
Rich Ellerson: I think we're catching up. I thought they were fair fights last year. We didn't win them but we got ourselves into a fair fight. Our arrow remains up athletically. I think we're younger than both of them right now in terms of where we are as a program. We expect to be successful. We get it. Those unique rivalries that we have with the other services academies is a source of pride. It's something our guys look forward to and the fact is all three academies are playing good football right now. We're united on the national stage as playing competitive football. That hasn't been the case for most of the last generation or so. The fact we've got these programs going in the right direction. Playing this quality of football. Now we want to get out there and start getting our share of W's [wins] and add more competitiveness and more drama to that Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. Is there anything about this team that concerns you to the point it may keep you up at night as your looking at this team gearing up for the start of the season?
Rich Ellerson: The youth we have at some positions and the relative inexperience we have at some positions. We just know we're going to have to make some adjustments. We've had to make some calls coming out of the gate here after a couple of weeks of training camp. We made some calls in terms in how we'll adjust our systems; take advantage of current personnel set. We'll find out how right we are when we start playing games. There is some of that stuff you just don't know till you go out and keep score. That's what I guess keeps awake at night. It's like a great novel you can't read the next chapter till September 3 [opening day]. We're going to prepare this bunch as best we can. We're going to make sure the guys have a chance to go out and play and compete and then will adjust from there. I always talk about how much you learn about yourself from the first week to the second week. In my coaching lifetime this year might be more full of suspense than any I've ever had but I'm encouraged. I really am. I don't think it's a question that we don't have guys, we have guys, we're trying to make sure we're employing those talents and getting those guys the best possible chance to be successful coming out of the gate while their relatively immature from an experience standpoint.

In Part 2 Rich Ellerson discusses the 2011 Army offense. Top Stories