‘A Heck of a Ball Coach'

When it comes to speaking about first year Army head coach Rich Ellerson and his infamous Double Eagle Flex defense, few individuals are more qualified than former Cal Poly linebacker Kyle Shotwell. That's because Shotwell stared on Ellerson's 2006 Mustang defense, thriving in a scheme which ranked annually amongst the top in all defensive statistical categories in Division I-AA.

The third in a line of three consecutive Buck Buchanan Award winners at Cal Poly between 2004 and 2006, Shotwell was a one-man wrecking crew during his senior season as a Mustang, recording an almost insane 122 total tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, seven sacks, and two forced fumbles. Following a brief two-year stint of testing the NFL waters, Shotwell returned to his alma mater shortly after coach Ellerson departed for the United States Military Academy, taking over as linebackers coach for new Mustang headman Tim Walsh. And while he may have missed the chance to develop his own coaching talents under his former mentor, Shotwell continues to have nothing but praise for the 56-year old Ellerson, who now takes on the challenge of improving an Army team which has not been to a Bowl game since 1996. I caught up with Shotwell recently, and got the scoop on why he thinks that coach Ellerson will be just the man to turn around the West Point football program.

Adam Nettina (AN): What are your general impressions of coach Ellerson?

Kyle Shotwell (KS): Well, first and foremost, he's as a unique of a football coach as there is. He has a vision, and he has an attitude and a mentality of how the game of football is supposed to be played and how he views the game of football. It is unlike any that I've ever been around, and it is so unique that as a result it has been extremely effective."

AN: What exactly is so unique about it?

KS: Well, [defensively] there are some basic rules that you follow, and as a player it just really allows you the freedom to just react once you've master some of those few basic things. I think what makes it so unique is the fact that you've got two ‘flex' three-techniques, and at some points there is only one guy on defense with his hand down in a ‘3-4' stance and that's our nose guard. As a result, quarterbacks and offensive linemen have a really hard time telling where pressure is coming from. It just looks – and this is the best way to put it – like organized chaos. It really is organized chaos. That's what it looks like from the offense's point of view. As a result, when we play against a team, and they have something like three days to prepare for it leading up to the game, I mean it's really not enough time for offenses to really scout it and get good at going against it. While [coach Ellerson] was at Poly it really gave him an advantage because these offensive coordinators and offensive players [from the opponent's team] really could not prepare for it in time."

AN: It's interesting the way you talk about his infamous ‘Double Eagle Flex' defense. You hear so much about it, but is it really a defense in which opposing offenses have to scheme around (as opposed to the defense scheming around the offense?)

KS: Oh, definitely. I think that coach Ellerson's mentality is that ‘we're going to bring pressure and attack the offense and we're going to make them react to us.' I think the offenses are saying the exact same thing, but coach Ellerson's defense and that scheme that they run is really pressure oriented and it really does force the offense into some compromising positions and it puts them on their heals. It's like I said – there are times where it looks like ten men might blitz, and trying to sort through that in a split second can be confusing for some [quarterbacks]. It definitely is an attacking style of play.

AN: I guess the question then becomes whether or not that sort of defense I adaptable to the various forms of offense we see around college football. I'm not sure which kinds of schemes you played against at Cal Poly, but is coach Ellerson's defense one which can be adaptable to play against different offenses on a week by week basis?

KS: Definitely. It's like anything. From week to week you are going to vary your gameplan depending on what the opposing team is doing. But yet the general rules and general principles - from anything like where you place your eyes to the footwork you keep - from week in to week out they are going to stay the same. In my opinion there is not much of that that needs to go into the defense because of the fact that it is so unique and because the mentality of it is attack, attack, attack…well when you're attacking sometimes you're basically just betting the pressure is going to get there or that your defensive call is better than their offensive call. Coach Ellerson's track record would say that more often than not he has been right on with those calls, so I think from week to week then yes, you do make adjustments, but they are so slight that it would carry over from week to week - whether your playing a team running out of the Power I formation or a team which likes to run the triple option or a team with four wide receivers. You are always going to be able to adjust on defense."

AN: Is this a defense which can be realistically installed in the course of one offseason, or do you think coach Ellerson is going to need more than one season to teach it to his players at Army and to find the right personal groupings for it?

KS: I think that it's something that from the outside looking in it's something where the defense looks a lot more complex than it really is. When you're on the inside there are a few basic principles and rules and that uniqueness to it, and it will take a little bit for the players to adjust to. But realistically they could be able to put it in in one offseason. I think the biggest thing is recruiting, because it's different from when you've been running something like a 4-3. I mean the players are going to be different types of characters. The middle linebacker is not going to need to be a 230, 240-pound guy. He's going to need to be a 210-pound guy who probably played running back in high school and can really run. Your outside linebackers are going to be guys who would basically be strong safeties in a 4-3 who are now going to be asked to go out on wide receivers and cover them man to man. So that is what is going to take a longer time, the recruiting that changes. [The Army defenders this year] are going to be able to mentally know what is going on. They are going to mentally know what they are supposed to be doing; it's just a matter of does the team have the guys who can physically do what they are being asked to do. Especially at that middle linebacker position; that guy has got to be a pretty special athlete who has the ability to run sideline to sideline and make a lot of tackles. If you don't have that guy in that system than it is going to be tough, but I'm sure [coach Ellerson] will put his best guy on defense and put him at that position.

AN: Army has not exactly been recruiting ‘Blue Chip' prospects as of late, with the Black Knights routinely going up against teams that have advantages in size and speed on offense. Is this defense one which can make up for those inherit personnel disadvantages?

KS: No doubt. No question in my mind. That is where we and coach Ellerson made our living, and as a team we were very successful at Cal Poly because we were taking guys who were a little undersized in the bigger schools' minds. [Coach Ellerson] would take a chance on the guy who was 200-pounds and could run a 4.5 as opposed to the guys who were 230-pounds who were running 4.6s. They were the guys with chips on their shoulders and the guys who knew that they belonged playing at a high level of competition. We were very successful at that, and its something that because the defense is so unique and because it is so attack oriented, it does force the offense to play on their heels and thus gives the defense an equalizing effect and gives us a chance to be successful.

AN: In your experience, how is coach Ellerson a recruiter? Does he have the ability to ‘sell' a program and connect with recruits?

KS: You know what, that's difficult for me to touch on because I've never recruited with him as a coach. But I will say this; what I was able to say from coach Ellerson – and I understand it even more now while coaching – and that was his ability to see the diamond in the rough or to see a guy that a Pac 10 school or Mountain West schools might say ‘he's too short' where as coach Ellerson would say ‘well heck, he's extremely explosive.' [Coach Ellerson] has a unique ability to see the things and to spot the things that might not be obvious to 95% of football coaches and he has a really unique ability to spot those qualities and he knows in his mind which qualities are important and he knows how to look for them. His whole time here at Cal Poly he made a habit of recruiting guys who were under-recruited by bigger schools but had qualities that he liked and he had tremendous success with that method. I would imagine that is exactly how it will be at Army, as well.

AN: You were one of the best defenders in what was I-AA football during your career at Cal Poly. How influential was coach Ellerson in that success and in your own development?

"Oh he was definitely influential. Both coach Ellerson and [current Army defensive assistant] Payam Saadat. They were really able to utilize my strengths and my abilities. Even from year to year we had three straight Buch Buchanan award winners but we were able to kind of ‘tweak' our system to utilize the strengths of the guys that we had. For instance, coach Ellerson felt like I was a pretty good blitzing linebacker, and as a result we ran a lot of blitzes in which I was involved, so much so [that in my senior year] I had seven sacks, which is pretty good for a linebacker. He has an ability to understand guys' qualities and to put them in positions to be successful and he has passed that along to Payam Saadat who, in my opinion, has grown a tremendous amount under coach Ellerson and has become a heck of a ballcoach and was a great mentor to me, even to this day. The defense really did allow me to utilize my strengths (which were my speed and my vision) and to succeed in that way.

AN: West Point football has obviously seen better days. Knowing what you know about coach Ellerson, do you ultimately think he will be successful at West Point and do you think he was the right hire for the program?

KS: I do. Number one because like I said earlier he has unique ability to spot the qualities in people that are on his team. Number two I know coach Ellerson has a passion for the place. His dad and his brother went there and I know coach Ellerson feels like it is his ‘duty' as an American citizen to make sure that USMA is respectable and that their football team is one to be reckoned with. I know that that idea is a huge passion on his heart and I know he will not rest until that is the case. Besides that I mean he's just a heck of a ball coach. He has the ability to communicate what he wants with his players, and I think because he is so unique the whole culture [at West Point] is going to change. I think that when you've had some down years one of the most important things is to have a complete culture change and that is definitely something that coach Ellerson and his staff will bring in. In my mind there is no doubt that he will be successful.

Adam Nettina can be contacted at AdamNettina –at –gmail.com.

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