One-on-one with Rich Ellerson, part 1

In an exclusive interview ArmySports.com recently spoke with 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 last year's disappointing season 3-9 following the 2010 winning season and bowl victory and the current state of the team.

ArmySports.com: Coming off last season's disappointing season where do you feel the program is now and what are your expectations for 2012?

Rich Ellerson: We expect to be good. We expect to win. We're way ahead of where we've been I think. While we went through that excruciating difficult year last fall, the bad news is last year we played a lot of freshmen. We had some guys get banged up so we played some more freshmen. Now the good news is they're not freshman any more. They're back, they're sophomores, they're bloodied. They've prepared well. We have been working on this, not just the last couple of weeks, but since January. I'm really pleased with some of that growth we made. Especially that sophomore class now that were freshmen last year, which were really the first top to bottom fully vetted group of guys we got in the program, who were recruited [2010 class] with to the voice and were identified  as guys who could do we are looking for them to do on offense and defense. So for a lot of reasons we're ahead.

We have a senior presence on both sides of the ball. Three or four defensive starters, three or four offensive starters, most of whom have a good bit of experience with them. We have that nucleus of senior leadership on both sides of the ball. We're experienced beyond our years even though we'll still be a relatively young squad with a lot of sophomores out there. We're talking sophomores not freshmen. Last year at this time we were talking freshmen and as the year went on we had more and more freshmen [playing]. I'm encouraged from that standpoint. Obviously last year we looked at where we struggled, things like the turnover battle. We've redoubled are efforts in those regards. We've doubled down on the things we think we were doing right and we believe we've been doing right for years. We found some other things we can incorporate and take advantage of what happened last year.

I think we are in a good place. 

ArmySports.com: Often it's said that for a player that after their freshman season the light goes on and the speed of the game slows down as players gain experience. As you mentioned so many freshmen saw playing time last season. Whom have you noticed has really improved as sophomores?

Rich Ellerson: There are a couple of areas but you can talk about the offensive backfield. You can talk about Terry Baggett and Larry Dixon; both are sophomores. Larry played more than Terry last year. Terry broke a toe last year early on. Both of those guys have really taken advantage of their time here. They were good players last year when they played and their better players now. They are more experienced and more physically mature.

I want to talk about [offensive linemen] Ryan Powis and Stephen Shumaker but I can't. Ryan's not going to be available for the first week. I'm devastated. It looks like we'll have him for the second week and not the first week. He's as good a player as we have on our team. Defensively you're going to see Mike Ugenyi and  Bobby Kough [defensive tackles] both interior defensive linemen have a presence we just didn't have last year. We played [up front] an awful lot with guys who were frankly defensive ends or linebackers who were trying to hold down the fort as defensive tackles and it just doesn't work. The physics is wrong and it made it really tough on that linebacker crew. Speaking of linebackers you've got Geoff Bacon who we think has a chance to make every tackle. You can't talk about that second row without talking about [SAM safety] Hayden Pierce. He played most of last year at strong safety as a plebe and now is a veteran guy as a willy old sophomore.        

ArmySports.com Last year the team's Achilles' heel was its turnovers. For the first two years you were one of the best teams in the nation in turnover margin. Last season the team was one of the worst. What have you done this off season to improve ball security and on defense working to creating turnovers.

Rich Ellerson: Some of that stuff in terms of the takeaways is the ability to play across the line of scrimmage. That starts with high speed collisions with the football. Playing on your opponent's side of the ball is where those things start to happen. We're as ball aware as any defense in the country. You've got to get to your opponents before they quite expect you if you're routinely going to get that ball out and win that fight for the ball in the air. The quarterbacks under pressure are the ones that make those mistakes with the ball not ones who are sitting there untouched.

Offensively we've done the right things. We know what right looks like and we've doubled down on those things but you don't want to coach fear into your skill people on offense. We're attacking. We have great confidence with those things associated with the football. We found some things, some decisions, some choices we made as a coaching staff that impacted that dynamic negatively. Some of it however was frankly maturity. When you start four different freshmen running backs, when you start three different quarterbacks one freshman [Santiago] , three different centers, one freshman [Powis] you have a lot of guys touching the ball in that high speed environment for the first time. You can understand where they'll be challenges. What we've decided as a coaching staff though is to say it is okay if we are faced with that circumstance again how will we handle it better, how can we handle it differently in a way to keep that from the huge negative it was. We've found some things. As I say were going to double down on the things we've done well year in and year out. The good news was that we went through that excruciating moment last year and we've taken away some lessons that we think can help us down the road.   

ArmySports.com: The biggest disappointment last season for fans may have been the second half meltdown against Air Force and the close loss to Navy.  All service academy coaches are judged on their records against the other service academies. While there isn't any real pressure from the administration you were ranked as the 14th in the coach's hot seat poll. Do you feel any extra pressure to break through this year against the other service academies?

Rich Ellerson: To be honest with you that's a question that I could have spoken to a month ago but we're three days away from playing San Diego State  I can't tell you what that's going to be like or what that's going to feel like. That's not even on the radar right now. We're so zeroed in on what's going to happen

 in three days. The things that have been a challenge in those games were the same things that were a challenge in the other games last year. You talk about being able to physically match up with people late in football game. The physical maturity of our football team. The turnover battle was huge in both contests. You don't have to look very far to find out what you need to be better to be successful in those games. It's the same things that are breaking your heart in every other game. It's not metaphysics, it's physics. It's play hard and have fun and you'll be okay.      

ArmySports.com: A fan asked since the game is 7:30 pm ETS and practice has been in the morning before classes it would seem that the players' bodies would be shutting down at game time. Will he hold practice later this week to better prepare the team for the time difference? Does he plan to do anything different to prepare the team due to the time difference?

Rich Ellerson   No. They'll be excited to play. It's a question frankly of just a few more hours of rest and recovery. We're not getting up any earlier. We are just practicing first thing in the morning. We're not waking up any earlier. 

Note Ellerson confirmed Malcolm Brown is out for Saturday's game. In Part 2 Rich Ellerson discusses the program's challenges and the 2012 Army offense. 


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