Talking Defense With Ellis Johnson

Here's a Q&A with Mississippi State defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson by Brent Bozeman.

Coach, who were your influences as far as the type of defense that you now run? And in particular, how did Bill Oliver influence you as a coach?
"He (Oliver) definitely had a strong influence on me, but from the standpoint of X's and O's, I had many influences, and I'm not sure that any one person influenced me more than any other. I learned a lot of schemes over the years from different people. In college, I learned the 8-man front schemes and some of the things that Frank Beamer still uses today. Then I went to the 50 defenses while I was at Southern Miss. Then we went to a 3-4 scheme while at Alabama and then to a 4-3. So I guess I've been all over the board in my career. Now, we base out of a 4-3, but I believe in being flexible and adjusting your scheme to fit your personnel."

Do you like the 4-3 the most?
"There are a lot of different types of 4-3 defenses. Some play zone out of it and some play pressure-man out of it. I'm not really married to any one defense as far as X's and O's. We'll be flexible enough to adjust to our personnel. We'll base out of a 4-3 but we'll be very multiple in our fronts. At times we'll look like a 4-3, sometimes we'll look like a 3-4, sometimes a 5-2 and at times a 3-3 stack with 5 DB's.

"There are two things I believe about a scheme: One, you need to adjust your scheme to get the maximum amount of speed on the field at the same time. Two, make sure you know your scheme, teach it effectively, believe in it, and make your players believe in it....that is the key.

"But although scheme is important for getting everyone on the same page, players are a lot more important than scheme. That's a philosophy I've alway's had."

Going back to Oliver, What made him so special? (Bill 'Brother' Oliver, was the famed defensive coordinator at Alabama when they had the best D ever in college football back in '92. Coach Johnson was on his staff as a LB coach.)
"The number 1 thing about Bill, and I have to mention Mike Dubose and Jeff Rousey who coached that defense with us as well, they were really good teachers of the game. They understood technique and fundamentals and they were very good in situational defense...down and distance situations and formations.

"Brother was a great teacher. He had everything you have to have to be great....he was a great tactician, he was intense, sound, and a great teacher. But the one thing that stood out most, and this is something I don't have and wish I had, is that he had what I call great Imagination. He could change his scheme a little from week to week without confusing his players. He could adjust just enough to give the opponent a problem with something they didn't see the week before on film. That's something I don't do well but I hope I've learned some of that while I was with him."

What are your strengths then?
"Whether a person's perceptions of themselves are real or not, I think I'm very organized. We'll give attention to detail, and we'll be demanding on the player. I hope a strength that I bring is an element of flexibility, to be able to get the best players on the field to make plays and to adjust to various offensive schemes as we go."

That 1992 Alabama defense, which some say was the best ever, had some amazing stats. They only gave up 194 yards per game, only 55 rushing yards on average and only 5 rushing TD's all year. Is that even possible today?
"I guess it is. I've seen some good defenses the last few years, but that was an unbelievable group of kids. No question in my mind, that I've never seen a team that could run like they could. We were not a big team but they could really run. And we didn't have to substitute much at all, except for bringing in a 5th DB every now and then. We could probably adjust to just about anything anybody threw at us. It was a very unique team. And they were very smart and adaptable, football intelligent, if you will. And the offense helped us quite a bit that year. That ball control offense was a big part of our success. They were very conservative but hard-nosed, not many turnovers and they burned that clock. I bet there were games where we didn't play over 60 snaps. That would be a stat I would be interested in."

Your best defense as a coordinator from a stat standpoint was the 1999 Alabama defense. You were 2nd in the nation in rushing D and 9th in total defense. Tell us about that D and have you evolved any since then?
"Yes, a little bit. Here, we'll be a little closer to that '99 defense than to that one in '92. In '92 we were a 3-4 defensive team and more of a 4-3 in '99. We'll be mostly a 4-3 here. I thought we were very simple up front in '99. Now, I've changed a little and we're more multiple up front, trying to get smaller, faster players on the field. But we'll base out of a zone like we did (in '99). I don't think we were a very good pass coverage team then, and didn't play a lot of man coverage and I think we'll be similar to that here. But we'll be more multiple up front and do more shifting during cadences."

Last year, MSU's defense was so bad that it ranked 117 out of 117 teams in D-1. Why do you think it was so bad?
"I don't know. There are many factors, I think. The one thing I do know is that Joe Lee's system was totally different from what they were running, from the standpoint of teaching, adjustments, and techniques. The players had learned that system, grew up in it, and were recruited to fit that system. Hopefully, we won't have that problem now since it won't be such of a drastic change from last year.

"Also, they had terrible luck with injuries. And, they were young, and got even younger when the injuries occurred. There was no continuity.

"You could probably add up a hundred different factors I guess, but it's the emotional part of it, that will to fight, that concerns me the most. I mean, when (a player) is not good enough, he's not good enough. But when a player doesn't play as hard as he can play, whether he's up 30 or behind by 30, that bothers me. And that is something that I am certainly not going to tolerate, and I don't think anyone here is going to tolerate. And I don't think these players have to be those kind of people.

"I'll tell you this, we are excited as coaches! We've had a great off-season program and the players have had great attitudes. I really believe, based on that, that they're going to come back and give it all they have. I think they'll play hard and believe they can win."

Does MSU have the talent to move from say a 117 ranked defense to being ranked 50 or so?
"I really think we could get lucky and do that. I mean, statistically, there's probably not much difference between 117 and 58. I hope we can do better than that. I certainly think we can move up in overall team performance."

Speaking of personnel, who are your best players?
"Well, we only have 15 days of spring practice to go on at this point. That's like trying to judge a movie by the previews, so we don't really know for sure.

"But the first guy I would mention would be Ronald Fields. He has to be the player, overall, that stood out. He's going to have to be more consistent if he is going to be a difference-maker. But he was the best on either side of the ball.

"Deljuan Robinson has a lot of upside and a tremendous future. I think he's going to be an effective player.

"One player that really caught our eye was Avery Hannibal. He started out up front and had a few good practices and a dominating first scrimmage. Then we moved him so he hasn't found a home yet, but he's a football player." (He has since been moved back to defensive line.-Gene)

"Clarence McDougal, I thought did outstanding. I think he could really be a special player in our scheme.

"Quinton Culberson, He was very limited due to injury. He was not even two-thirds of himself and still did some things, athletically, that were outstanding. If he could continue to mature as a player, he could really be a difference-maker in this league.

"But we're still learning the players."

What about the other DBs? From my count, you only have about 6 who can play, and Jeramie Johnson would be the 6th?
"Johnson, he has his limitations. But he's a better physical run player than a coverage person. And I'd have to say the same thing about Darren Williams. I think he's gonna be a very good player."

Who's going to be the third CB in the nickel package?
"Right now, if we were to play tomorrow, (this was recorded before the signing of Staley) it would be Culberson, (Kevin) Dockery, and David Heard. Those would be the best we could put out there as a combination."

So David Heard has made a good impression?
"He really did some good things in the spring on film. I think he's got a chance to be a great player, but we haven't seen much of him really.

"(Mario) Bobo and (Corey) Spells are two good signees. I don't know if they'll be able to play at this level right away, but we'll see. A freshman is going to have to figure in somewhere once we start putting 5 and 6 DBs on the field, since depth in the secondary is a concern for us right now."

So as far as overall talent...?
"As far as talent is concerned, I really don't know where we are talent-wise. I mean, I've been out three years (in a smaller program at the Citadel) so from my viewpoint, we've got some talent. But we're about to play against the best football talent in the America - so whether we are good enough to compete against that, I don't know for sure. We'll see soon."

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