Adam Nettina (AN): I want to switch over to the defense for a moment. I think many people from the outside looking in see your defense as shrouded in mystique. At the same time I know a number of fans have trouble understanding it and have wondered whether or not it's something that can realistically be installed in one offseason. Is your defense as complicated as it may appear to the average fan?
Rich Ellerson (RE): It's not a complicated defense. It is a sophisticated defense. It is different. We start with a slightly different premise than the one most folks do, and when you start with that different premise you head off in a different direction as you start to solve problems. So yes it looks very different and it can look complex from the outside looking in, but that's our goal. It's the idea of being sophisticated…that idea that it is comparatively easy for 1/11th of your football team, but that it is very difficult for your opponent. I would argue that ‘complicated' means that it is difficult on your guys and relatively easy on your opponent. We try to err the other way, where it is not complicated but rather sophisticated and unique. And it is fun to play in, so those are the strengths. It is not rocket science – it is still just football.
AN: I recently spoke with one of your former linebackers (Kyle Shotwell) about the defense and he seemed to place a lot of emphasis on the middle linebacker position in the scheme. What does Stephan Anderson give you at this position going into next season?
RE: Well, I think football is a lot like other sports. That is if you start to put your basketball team together you are looking at the center and the point guard and if you're talking about a baseball team then you're talking about the pitcher and the catcher and the center fielder…well I think football is the same way. You talk about the quarterback, the center, the middle linebacker…these are the guys who have the chance to impact every play; they start with the football and are tracking the football throughout the play. I think [Stephen Anderson] is a great guy to give those opportunities to. Obviously [Kyle Shotwell] benefited in his years at Cal Poly with a tremendous defensive front in front of him. If you don't have a very good defensive front you generally do not hear a whole lot about the linebacker. And Kyle had that look, and I think one of the strengths about our football team – or at least one of those things which has the chance to be a strength for our football team provided how good we do with our summer and how healthy we can stay – will be our defensive front. That bodes well for us I think. If our defensive front can be one of the strengths or the strength of our football team, then I think you will have a chance to hear Steve Anderson's name a lot and we will have a chance to be competitive. It is fragile, like it is most places. We have "x amount" of good players and nobody has enough good players in that you can allow for them to get hurt or lose them over the summer, so I as a coach have to be able to manage that resource.
AN: How adaptable is your defense to the variety of offenses and offensive schemes which we see in the game today?
RE: Very [adaptable]. Again, that is the nature of what I call ‘sophisticated.' What we are trying to do is to resist the urge to have more than one answer for the same question - so we and our systems remain manageable and repeatable. If you are doing something or if something is a challenge this particular week, well here is our answer, and we're not going to try to have two or three answers for that same question. We're going to answer it a certain way [every time] and we feel like we have the answers built in. They are different, but again, it's probably like what you saw last week and that's the whole point.
AN: There was a stretch of 7 games in the middle of last season where this team went 3-4, with all those losses coming by nine points or less. Does that tell you that this team is close to where it needs to be, and that your job is just to "get them over the hump" so to speak, and teach the players how to finish games?
RE: I don't know what it tells me to be honest. What I think I have seen – and what I think what you have pointed out – is that there was some good work being done here, and I am determined in the way we staff this thing and in the way we come out of the gate to take advantage of that good work. At the same time it is going to be a unique offense, and it is going to be a unique defense. We are going to establish a ‘team culture' that is different. We are going to have a way of operating which is efficient and we are going to be efficient with our cadets and their time, because the cadets' time is under such pressure. We need to give them a chance to develop physically and in every other realm of their experience here at West Point. So there are certainly some things that are changing…there was some good work that was being done here and we are trying to capitalize on that, and we are trying to be able to take a step forward without taking a step back. I think you alluded to that earlier, and if we can do that, and if you look at the scores from a year ago and do that then you can say it's not unrealistic. If you look at our schedule and how we played last year…as I say if we can take a couple of steps forward without having to take one back then we will have a great chance, but that is a mouthful. If you talk about a unique offense or a unique defense then you are talking about a different culture on your team internally, and a different voice on your team. It's something that your guys have responded to or embraced, but it's still not the same as making it your own. So we have work to do. Don't misunderstand me – we still have an uphill fight – but it is not as steep maybe as some people would assume.
AN: I think some fans and onlookers are expecting instant success with this program considering the NCAA has your schedule ranked as the 4th easiest in the country. What is your outlook on the schedule, and how do you communicate its relative strength to your players?
RE: We are going to be great at West Point at doing that…the idea of staying in the moment or staying on the task at hand. Whether it be the next game or the next practice - or when you are at that practice when you get to the next drill or the next repetition - we are going to be great at saying in the moment. It is one of those cultural things that is not unique to football at West Point; it is West Point. We have to be able to stay in the moment and stay focused at the task at hand. Nobody knows how difficult that schedule is. [The NCAA rating] is absolutely useless information because who knows? Again, I mean look at a team like Ball State. When they scheduled that series of games that was not supposed to be a tough battle. Well oops…I mean you just don't know who is going to be able to play or not. You can say historically or on average that it is a "doable" schedule, but who really knows who is waiting for you when you walk out on that field. Certainly I would think all of those teams are looking at their schedules right now and they see Army and they are feeling pretty good about that game based on recent history. Well we're working overtime to make sure that we break their heart and they are working overtime to try to break ours, so here we go. We know that there are some brand-name schools out there that are going to fall on their face this year, and that there is going to be a disaster at those schools. Conversely there are some teams that people are looking at - and maybe Army is one of them - that they say ‘hey we'll get that win,' but oops, not so fast there bubba. We've got a plan too, and that is why you have to line up and play. So I don't put anything on [the perceived weakness of the schedule]. I think we are mature enough and we need to be mature enough and to be good at that part of our institutional culture – that is the ability to stay in the moment and the task at hand – that we are not going to be seduced by someone else's expectations one way or the other.
AN: Would you call this season a ‘one game at a time' process, or is there already a sense of renewed interest towards becoming competitive with Navy again?
RE: Institutionally we are going to have that...You know I don't have to put an emphasis on our inter-service rivals. You get that when you walk through the front door. My task is to stay in the moment. I am not worried about who we are playing in week four, or week five, or week six. Frankly I'm not even worried about who we are playing in the first week. I am worried about what we are going to do in the first practice. And right now frankly I'm working hard at managing these summers. It's one of those things that is either going to go one way or the other. It is really going to be an asset and help us and make us a better football team or it has the potential of being the trap and has the potential of setting us back as a football team. So that is where I am. I am in the moment. I understand that once we start training camp we are going to talk about the year one time as an entire season; one time in which we will talk about all twelve regular season games. But beyond that we are going to talk about the next one. And as I said before, when we talk about the next game we are going to start to talk about the next practice. And once we get to that next practice we are going to talk about the next drill and once we get to that drill we are going to talk about the next rep. And that is how you get where you want to go. The good news for us here is that that is one of the great lessons that West Point reinforces. That is not the football team trying to make that point. That is an institutional imperative…that you are able to stay on task and that you are able to focus intensely on what is right in front of you.
AN: Given the fact that Air Force and Navy have been so dominant in Service Academy football play and given the fact that all three schools are more or less competing for the same recruits, how do you sell your Army program right now to high school juniors and seniors?
RE: Frankly we are really encouraged. We think we know what it takes to be successful with this offense and this defense and at this institution. We see what we are doing as being absolutely consistent with what the mission at West Point is. We are finding that there are all kinds of really gifted young men who are really looking for something like this. Some are looking specifically for this, and some are looking for something like this; they want to be challenged and they want to be a part of something that is greater than themselves. The idea of service is part of their life's expectations. Again, we are talking about quality young men that have this. So yes, it is a smaller pool, but it is a great pool and we are very encouraged. I think the vast majority of young people out there are looking for something that is bigger than themselves. They are looking for a future that is meaningful and our institution has been doing that and providing that since we have been a country. So I don't think it is a difficult sell, although I think sometimes it is difficult to articulate to someone who is totally unfamiliar with a service academy or the culture – but even within that culture I still think West Point stands alone. I honestly believe that, so the question becomes whether or not we can articulate that vision for who we are and where we are going and what our lives will look like. That is the challenge, and that is why we get paid the big bucks as football recruiters and coaches. What we are trying to articulate and what we are trying to present is really something spectacular and we are encouraged. The audience is there, the right guys are there, and those guys are very receptive. So let the games begin.
Adam Nettina can be contacted at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com.