Interview: Rich Ellerson Part I

Rich Ellerson put the Army football program on the right track during his first year with a generally solid 5-7 rebuilding year. The five victories represented the most wins for Army in thirteen years. After a lost decade for the Black Knights, Ellerson and his staff made Army competitive again.

Recently I spoke with head coach regarding the current state of the program, certain positions, an over view of this years' offense and defense and discussed his recruiting philosophy.

ArmySports.com: The second season has often proven to be the breakthrough season for new coaches in turning around struggling service academy football programs. Army fans remember Jim Young installing the wishbone in 1984 and leading them to an 8-3 record and a bowl win. Paul Johnson was responsible for two turnaround seasons at Navy. He was Navy offensive coordinator then later as head coach when Navy posted winning seasons in their second year.

Where do you feel the Army program is entering its second year?

Rich Ellerson: We're better but we won't know until we start playing games of course. We're clearly more veteraned, we have some good players that have been around the block once with us. The good news is you're a little bit better and you're more experienced. The bad news you're just that much more fragile because of the experience. You never have a couple of experienced guys at the same position. So if you bang up the wrong guys it can really make a difference in your prognosis. So, like you do expect we're a little bit more intuitive, we're quicker, we're much more efficient with a lot of those things that are fundamental to the offense and the defense and the kicking game a year out. We're a little bit more physically mature because most of the guys are back but so is probably everyone else we're playing. So you just don't know how you stack up till you start playing games. .

ArmySports.com: Have you set goals and expectations for the team this year?

Rich Ellerson: Yeah, they have and those we kind of kept internal. Obviously there are some expectations. The guys have high expectations for themselves. As I say the thing we need to remember, and they do, is just remember how hard this is. How demanding this game is, how difficult this game is, how hard it is, how demanding it is to win a football game. While we expect to compete well. We can't ever lose sight of the fact that we're better but this is going to be tough.

ArmySports.com: Army hasn't had a winning season since 1996. No Black Knight has experienced success. How have you worked to change the culture that surrounded the team since your arrival?

Rich Ellerson: Well, a lot of things. There are some things that are just magnificent about West Point. West Point works. As an institution, West Point works. That's crystal clear to anybody who's here. To anybody who's paying attention. To what our graduates are doing. So what we've tried to say is guys we need not to wait till after graduation to find out that this is a really enabling experience. There is all kinds of things we are doing here that we can leverage for success. We need to do some of that leveraging on Saturdays, not wait till after we've graduated. We're trying to flip a paradigm, if you will, where some of these things that we've traditionally wanted to think of obstacles to success while we're here are in fact advantages. If we manage them in the correct way. If we embrace them. Part of that is we are going to win because of West Point not in spite of West Point. That has been a real point of emphasis. That part of the culture has really taken off. Guys recognize that they've chosen a steeper path. They've taken on more than their contemporaries. We like that about each other. We like that about ourselves and we are going to try to leverage that on Saturday afternoon.

ArmySports.com: After you were hired you brought most of your core coaching staff from Cal Poly to West Point. A lot of people were surprised that you kept so many holdovers from the previous staff. How has the synergy between the old staff and the new staff developed?

Rich Ellerson: It's been very positive. Again, it was a case of not wanting to take two steps back to take a step forward. We had some really qualified guys that were here. That had been on the ground here. I wanted keep the West Point I.Q. high on the coaching staff. Obviously the guys from California and Chris Smeland they brought with them some great technical expertise, familiarity with me and the offense and defense. How we practice and how we recruit and all those sort of things. As we tried to adjust that template, if you will, to West Point to where it fit and where it didn't fit. We needed to have a real great internal voice in terms where we were and how things worked. An appreciation for the day to day challenges that a cadet is engaged in. The good news is we have a lot of really good people, gifted people, no lack of effort, no lack of experience and no lack of passion for West Point. So it's been fine. It's actually been I think as good as you could possibly hope.

ArmySports.com: Turning to the offense. The biggest concerns last year was the struggles and inconsistency of the offensive line. It wasn't able to establish the fullback dive or midline option. Army finished only 16th in team rushing last year. The problem isn't coaching with the line being mentored by two very successful option line coaches in Coach McKeehan and Coach Tripp. With four returning seniors in their second year in the system where do you feel the offensive line in right now?

Rich Ellerson: I'm encouraged. Again there is a lot of things that go into that first year. Coaching is part of it. We don't lay all that on the players. Obviously everybody had a chance to be better last year. I did, every coach did, every player did. We made some gains. There were some things we did well. Hindsight is twenty-twenty. We look back. We kick ourselves for some choices we made. We made those choices and we live with them. You never know how things might have turned out if you picked a different emphasis or invested your time differently. The good news is as I said at the beginning of the interview is we're more experienced. It's nowhere more evident than in that group. Some of those guys were not only new to the offense. They were new to offense period. Anees Merzi and Seth Reed had been both defenders. You can imagine what their learning curve has been like. I'm encouraged where we are but as I say it becomes fragile then. Anees Merzi, Seth Reed, Zac Peterson and Jason Johnson have all those turns and you can't replace those turns. We have some other talented guys that who are competing in those lines that are really anxious to go. You can't short circuit that process of what a Saturday afternoon feels like. What the speed of real Division I college football game feels like. You can't do that in practice. You come as close as you can. You try to simulate what you can but it's not the same.

ArmySports.com: Looking at the slot backs. You've spoke about finding some "magic" at slot back. A slot back who can make the big play. Now that Jameson Carter has left the program what does the two deep look like right now?

Rich Ellerson: The one slot with Malcolm Brown, that I think you heard me talk about, is a guy that played as a true freshman last year. Is a much improved player both physically and obviously from an experience stand point going into his sophomore year. He's a real bright spot. He does have some magic when he touches the ball. Pat Mealy is a leader on our football team. An experienced guy, productive last year and he's better. Knowing what is going to be expected of him he prepared especially well for this season. He's changed his body makeup. He's a little quicker, he's a little stronger probably a little lighter. He's had a tremendous preseason training camp. You have those two guys. You have Brian Cobbs. He bounced around a little bit last year; played a lot in the kicking game last year. So he's been on the field, he hasn't been on the field at slot back, but he brings real speed. He can really stretch a defense. He's had a good spring and fall camp he has little bit of a muscle pull so he's missed some time. The young guy Raymond Maples, backing up Pat Mealy, was a fullback from the prep school. A slightly undersized fullback but is a very physical runner. He will play slot back for us. He has some magic with the football. He's behind in terms of the nuances of the position. He hasn't played division I football. He hasn't played that position. We think he's got a great future.

ArmySports.com: The offense only averaged 15.3 points per game last year. I wrote that last year's offensive coordinator, Ian Shields, must have suffered culture shock after directing a high powered attack at Cal Poly that averaged 41.8 points per game his last two years. Overall offensively, how close is the offense to where you want it to be?

Rich Ellerson: Well it's on track. We're better. What I think we'll see is that there were some things that just had to get in place fundamentally. Things that are ongoing in our time here. Here are some things that are absolutely in stone. How we play. There are other things that we can do on the fringe to take advantage of the situation; to take advantage of personnel. I think we're much better suited and in position to do that this year. We'll be a better team adjusting. It was frustrating at times last year. As a coaching staff we knew what needed to happen. We saw what was happening but our ability to communicate that to guys in a meaningful way to act on it was a real struggle because of our (the players) lack of experience. I thought we did a decent job during the course of our game preparation going into those games. I thought we had good success coming out of the gate against most people we played last year. We had a hard time keeping up with just even the little adjustments the defense would make. You can't take a time out to practice it for a while in the locker room and then come back out and try and play it. You have to be able to understand those things. Have been around the block with them before. That's where you'll see the offensive staff really start to flex their muscle from an experience standpoint. Their ability to anticipate certainly but to adjust during the course of the contest. Then there are some things we are always looking to turn the page. Given what's out there in the college football world that people are starting to use to defend these things there are trends. As you look at those trends they present challenges and opportunities. Our ability to do that, again, with an outfit that knows their way around the offense becomes kind of exciting. That's fun now. Last year I say it was more of a source of frustration than anything because we just weren't ready to take that step.

Next: We discuss with Coach Ellerson the defense and new players.

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