Interview with Rich Ellerson: Part II

In a recent exclusive interview's Jim Lawler spoke with Army head coach Rich Ellerson regarding the current state of the program, an overview of this year's offense, defense, special teams and recruiting. In this installment we discuss the outlook for this year's offense and include some questions from readers. I received a number of questions on one topic that many of our readers wanted to ask you. It revolved around the fact that last year Army was outscored 110-60 in the fourth quarter. The last two years the team has struggled in the fourth quarter. Is there anything you can do to address this disparity in scoring? Are you concerned about the mindset of the players and what is the reason for struggling down the stretch? Have you addressed this at all and do you feel it's something that can be addressed?
Rich Ellerson: It's not an issue. Obviously we need to play well down the stretch. It's not a sickness if you will, it's not a disease of character, or even how people say you're getting worn down, that you're not big enough. This team is not getting tired. It's different each week. There were some games we got outscored in the fourth quarter but we were taking a knee. We were winning. There were some games our style of play both offensively and defensively is an advantage. It's an advantage because it's difficult for our opponent to reproduce those systems in their practice environment. Obviously as the game goes on their getting some live repetitions of what that offense and defense feels like and looks like. So expect that their [Army's opponents] going to play better. They're going to get more comfortable with their style of play offensively and defensively. That's where you start to see some of the physical mismatch kick in. We're in a little bit of an uphill fight at times physically and we can mitigate some of that early on. As everybody wears down then it's our effort, our toughness and we've been good enough.

We've held people off and we won those games late in the game when we had to, we've proved we can do that. It's hard to so every week when you're playing up against a bigger, faster more physically mature outfit that's also a good football team. They become desensitized to the uniqueness of your [Army's] attack. I'm not trying to oversimplify it. What I think that will happen over time, that will always be the case except as time goes by here, when people get us into the fourth quarter. They're going to find that these guys are not only hard to defend, hard to prepare for but that they are just as big, as strong, as fast as we are and were still kicking your tail. That's coming as we mature physically but we're not going to freak out about that. We talk about being able to win the game on the last play if that's what it takes but we don't necessarily need it to take that. There is nothing wrong with going out and beating the heck out of somebody in the first half. So while we prepare with that in mind physically and mentally. We expect it to be every play for sixty minutes. We expect it to come down to somebody having to step up and make a play on the last play of the last quarter. That's what you prepare for but that's not always the way it works out. I promise you that we're preparing the right way. We're mentally conditioned the right way. Give your opponents some credit along the way and give us some time to catch up here physically and we'll be just fine in the fourth quarter. You'll love it. Last summer when I watched practice and you worked on the fly sweep I thought it was just a formation not a total change from double slots to a modified Wing T offense. It obviously worked and nearly doubled the offensive production. Why did you and coach Shields (Army's offensive coordinator) feel the need to change the base offense from double slots since the other formation had been very successful at Cal Poly.
Rich Ellerson: Well it's the same offense. By putting that other back [A- back] in the backfield you allow yourself to do some things. There is so much talk right now about the blocking below the waist. When you can and when you can't. Obviously if that guys coming out of the backfield he's not worried about that. The fly sweep as opposed to the toss. You know the fly sweep took the place of the toss [sweep] in our offense. It's the same play, same blocking, same reason for doing it. I know it's the same upfront. I was just curious what was the genesis behind the decision to change the base formation.
Rich Ellerson: It was frankly that ability to load at the first level [to block below the waist at the first level] and for now of course with what they've done [NCAA blocking below the waist rule changes] to block at the second level. The fly sweep part of it is the ball disappears. When you're tossing the ball or even running the fly sweep like a lot of teams do out of the shotgun [spread passing teams] the ball doesn't disappear on the defense. One of the things we were trying to do is find an efficient way to create misdirection in our offense. We've done that for years with the bootleg and the counter. There is no doubt that formation lends itself to that. It's interesting that you think it's a lot different. It's really not much different. You have the fly motion is identical to the spread bone. The wishbone and the spread are the same formation.

[NOTE: I've written how the wishbone was changed originally by Air Force head coach Ken Hatfield into the flex bone with running backs moving up as double slotbacks. This was modified by Paul Johnson into the spread option originally at Georgia Southern then at Hawaii where he coached for a time with Ellerson. Ellerson and offensive coordinator Ian Shields ran the spread option at Cal Poly and averaged 40. points per game their last two seasons there. It was a very easy start up. There were a couple of things we wanted to do. We wanted find ways to make the ball disappear to the defense and to create that misdirection. ( Ellerson then spoke off the record about why he chose the fly sweep over other plays and how it meshed with other looks which he requested I not reveal.)] At quarterback I watched Trent he looks great after off season surgery. We know Max Jenkins is second string. Do you plan on having Angel Santiago dress as third string quarterback or have him run JV team for more reps. How do you see the quarterback position?
Rich Ellerson: You just nailed it. We're going to try to accelerate his development. In Trent we have a quarterback while not a senior he's one of those rising juniors but he's got 25 starts under his belt. You can't find but two or three quarterback with that many starts. Probably none going into their junior year and very few going into their senior year that have as many [starts] as Trent does. As you say, he's taken advantage of the time physically and he is clearly stronger. He is a strong, confident, experienced football player at a key position for us. Max Jenkins is a perfect understudy. He can go into a game. He's unflappable. He's one of those senior leaders that we talk about. While he's not at the front of the line, he doesn't have the spotlight on him; he is universally respected and admired by his teammates. He is looked to for that steadying influence. Angel has tremendous upside but obviously he is inexperienced. We're going to try to use those game prep repetitions to work for him. Will plebe Gino DeBartolo quarterback the JV team?
Rich Ellerson: Gino's in there so is Colin [Downs]. Matt Luetjen may go back [to quarterback] and work to be the next Max Jenkins. We moved him around on defense last year. Had him covering kicks and got him on the field. We may hedge our bet and let him go back and revisit that quarterback position on the B squad. We'll see if not the next Max Jenkins, if not the next Trent Steelman. At B-back Jared Hassin had a great season last year but had some ball security issues last year. Has the staff worked with him on that issue because it's the only flaw currently in his game?
Rich Ellerson: As a football team we're good with the football. You're talking about the team that was third in the nation in turnover margin. So we know how to take care of the football. He's obviously one of those key guys. A lot of people run away from our style of play because of that mesh. [the option quarterback /fullback exchange] That mesh is the proximity to the line of scrimmage when you do it from under center. We understand how important turnovers are to success. Those guys are really good. Hassin is an explosive athlete. He's taking hard shots in there. He's going to be great with the football.

I think that's just the growth of the position. That was his first football in a few years. He'll continue to improve. He takes great pride in that part of his game. I expect we'll continue to see improvement there. He's a good player. Then having Larry Dixon as a freshman in the mix there, he gives some of that added depth into a key position that typically is a hard position to get through the year at. That's a physical job description playing fullback in our offense. That's when you talk about not being very deep, that was one of the things that was always in the back of my mind, I was thinking about that position. Our lines [the depth chart] have freshman and sophomores in them but at least there is a guy [Dixon] we're looking to that we think has a great future at that position. Speaking about the offensive line, you mentioned how pleased both you and coach Shields are with the offensive line and how they developed. Right guard was a battle this spring with Joe Bailey and Matt Villanti. Who's in the lead right now to be the starter?
Rich Ellerson: Joe. Joe's done a good job there. I think Matt has some athleticism going for him that's going to keep him in the hunt there. Right now Joe is a little more right, he's a little bit more consistent. They're both very combative, very prideful, very intense competitors. There are things athletically that Villanti has going that Joe has to work for but Joe has worked for it. Right now that's were it'll start out at. It may not stay that way. Expect to see both of them but right now I'll give the nod to Joe. Coach Tom Simi of the prep team raved about plebe center Ryan Powis. Now that you've had him on the field and had a chance to work with him, what is your impression of him and some of the younger linemen?
Rich Ellerson: Ryan is right in the middle of that battle. He's competing to start. He's not starting at the moment but he's competing to start. We have high expectations for him. That's saying a lot for a guy that's a freshman all be it a prep school freshman. That bodes well for him. The next of the offensive linemen was Stephen Shumaker. We actually had him over on defense initially just to take a peek at him there. He's moved back to guard where he played all year at the prep school. He's picked that up without a hitch. He'll be in the mix a little bit as a freshman. Those are the only two freshmen that I see challenging the two and a half deep on the offensive line. What other younger linemen who are not currently starting but might develop into starters down the road?
Rich Ellerson: Well you already talked about Villanti. I would say Dan Whitaker and Ben Jebb at tackle are two younger guys out there that are continuing to get better and better. At A and C back when you came here in 2009, those positions were probably really only one deep. Now you're probably three deep at both positions due to recruiting. How is that rotation shaping up right now?
Rich Ellerson: It's more health related right now. Malcolm [Brown] and Brian [Cobbs] both have struggled to stay on the field both this summer and frankly throughout their careers. Raymond Maples is back there and the youth we have with Trenton Turrentine and Terry Baggett. [Kelechi] Odocha continues to improve and impress. So we've got some flexibility in A and C backs that we've hadn't had in the past. There's some talented guys in those lines. We color code our classes [on depth chart] and there's a lot of young players that are figuring largely in the depth at both A and C back. Jon Crucitti has been a little bit of jack of all trades. You looked at him at wide receiver. We know he can catch the ball and block. He played A back last year. Where do you think he'll end up playing?
Rich Ellerson: He's going to have a little bit of everything. He's going to have a huge role in the kicking game. Everybody has different strengths, long suits, some guys are really, really fast, some guys are really, really strong what Jon brings to the game is he can pick things up so quickly. He is so adaptable. That's one of those things that going to drive him a little bit crazy because that probably means he's kind of the finger in the dike. If we find ourselves in an injury situation up to and including quarterback as we've talked about it. He's the guy we would go to because he's the definition of raw athleticism is his ability to watch somebody else do it and then go do it [himself]. He can internalize that repetition from the outside and go out and execute. That's what he's world class at. He runs well and as you said he's got good ball skills. He's physical but the thing that really sets him ahead of the crowd is his adaptability. We'll continue to leverage that. He's a holder, he's a backup punter he quarterbacks the punt team. He's does all kinds of things for your football team that lets you sleep at night. You talk about what keeps me awake [In Part 1]. What gets me back to sleep is knowing that Jon's on the bus and that he can go do it. Wide receiver is the one area you are still searching for an impact player. Obviously Davyd Brooks and Austin Barr were the starters last year. I have a couple of questions. Will Barr be ready for the season opener? What's your impression think about the sophomore receivers that have seemed to step up this summer and the plebe receivers you brought on board this season?
Rich Ellerson: Barr will be ready. I'm encouraged by the talent level of the youth there. Anthony Stephens played some last year as a freshman. I'm really encouraged with Jared McFarlin's growth. Physically he's trying to play catch-up. He's a relatively young guy that came direct to West Point and he's trying to catch-up physically but I think he's a real talent out there. Those are the two young guys, especially then you go into the freshman class. And you've got Chevaughn Lawrence and Michael Hudson who are both going to travel at different times this year. They're both extraordinary athletes. Again it's just that transition to the speed of this game and the nature of their job descriptions. Those guys have tremendous futures. So, again, you can argue that we have too many of our best athletes at wide receiver right now. We feel good about the future there because we know that part of our offense, like I say no one's going to mistake us for an aerial circus, but we need to be able break your heart out there when you give us the opportunity. We think we have the kind of skill level now that can that. A question from one of our readers was when former Army coaches Jim Young and Bob Sutton ran the wishbone offense years ago they used only one receiver plus a tight end. Since the tight end is a better blocker than a receiver, why do you use two wide receivers and no tight ends?
Rich Ellerson: There's no doubt there's a place for a three man surface in the offense. Obviously you have to have those guys. They're hard to find. They don't come out of thin air. Right now we feel like we're better when we spread the defense out [with two receivers] We've proved that over time that we can do that. That's something we've held on to. We're not adverse to a three man surface we think that's something we would like to be able to do [add to the offense] at some point in time. I'm not sure we have that personnel set ready to go just yet.

In Part 3 Rich Ellerson discusses the 2011 Army defense. Top Stories