Interview with Rich Ellerson: Part III

Rich Ellerson (Rob Christy-US PRESSWIRE)

Army head coach Rich Ellerson restored winning football at West Point in his second season as head coach. Recently, Jim Lawler of ArmySports.com spoke with Ellerson regarding the upcoming 2011 season. In this installment he discusses the defense and the challenges in replacing so many key starters from last year's bowl winning team.

ArmySports.com: I've been concerned about the size of defensive line. The nature of the double eagle flex lets you play smaller at quick and bandit tackle but the nose tackle has to play both A gaps. I've talked with coach Saadat about this. Is A.J. Mackey or whoever wins that spot big enough to handle two gap?
Rich Ellerson: Oh yeah. You don't have to be 260 to do that [play nose tackle] There is a number of ways to manage that space within our system. If I want someone to weigh more I can put quarters in their pockets. That won't be the issue. It's absolutely about the athleticism. There's a day when we're going to be a little more physically mature across the board where you are not going to raise an eyebrow when you look at the height and weight of those guys. However, for the time being that's the concern. If you watch those guys play you'll relax. Everybody's trying to weigh 300 pounds, we're not.

So you're going to worry about our weight. A couple of years ago the New York Giants won the Super Bowl and average on defensive front was 260 was the over/under. That is so misunderstood and so style of play dependent. We'll be alright. We're not trying to play sideways [two-gap].

ArmySports.com: Jarrett Mackey had a nice year at bandit tackle last year. You spoke about the need to get him on the field last year. You moved him back to his more natural quick end position. Will Jarrett generate the pass rush you normally look for in your quick end?
Rich Ellerson: The position will look a little different with him playing it than it did last year. As you say, he's very natural out there. He's comfortable in that role. We'll take advantage of his strength's and the fact that he's played so much football for us as he had. We need his name to be on the announcers lips.

ArmySports.com: With Quentin Kantaris gone who's looking to back up Jarrett Mackey right now at quick end?
Rich Ellerson: There's a couple of guys. I'm impressed with Jacob Drozd from the prep school who's a freshman. He's a really gifted guy. He may fall into a little bit of what happened to Jarrett last year. He's a guy we may stretch into the B gap a little bit [bandit tackle]. Colin Linkul [a direct admit] is another freshman who's really impressed us with his quickness and his ability to make some plays especially in the pass rush or off the edge. Shola Mustapha who is just now coming into his own going into his junior year. I think that speaks to the fact we just have to be patient with some guys. There is a guy the plebe experience took a toll on him. It's taken a little bit longer to get his legs back underneath him but he's really had tremendous training camp. He's got himself back in the middle of this thing and he can play both ends. He can play on the rush side and into the boundary. Corey Watts is another guy like that as is Clayton Keller. Those guys have some position flexibility going back to field as well as the boundary and especially Mustapha.

ArmySports.com: Speaking about Corey Watts and Clayton Keller, who is the starter at other defensive end right now?
Rich Ellerson: You're going to see both of them. That probably isn't going to be determined till we start playing games. They've both have done some really good things there.

ArmySports.com: How about the status of the competition between Chad Littlejohn and Brian Zalneraitis at bandit tackle?
Rich Ellerson: Littlejohn is going in there getting him a little closer to the ball [moving from whip linebacker to playing down] and I want to see how his legs recovery. He hasn't missed a rep in two weeks. He's taken every snap and his legs started to show but he's obviously very physically tough and strong. His size belies the power he can generate with his steps. For Zalneraitis summer [training] was not kind to him from a leg freshness standpoint. So he's getting better as training camp gone along. He is very, very quick; very athletic guy. We may add Powis [from offensive line] to that group. You got some real athletic guys down there that are undersized even by our own standards but very athletic and very quick

ArmySports.com: At linebacker you had a nice surprise with Andrew Rodriguez, Nate Combs returning from injury and Kingsley Ehie returning for a redshirt senior year. How has A-Rod and Nate looked?
Rich Ellerson: It's a tale of two cities. With A-Rod we're just now getting him up to full speed. We've taken our time and have been very, very cautious there because of the nature of his pre-existing injury.

Making sure he was exactly what he's supposed to be in terms of health. We've been really encouraged. He looks more agile and more athletic than he did before his injury. That's encouraging. We'll see as we continue to take baby steps towards the field. Nate frankly not so much. Nate is healthy. His knee is stable and is strong. He still not quite back to playing with the kind of speed and athleticism he has. He still not quite where he was yet. That journey is a little bit different for everybody but it can take a while. Kingsley has so many reps under his belt. Obviously he's all over the field in the kicking game. He adds some of that stability and leadership to that position. He has some limitations there but he has a thousand reps. When I talked to your earlier about how to manage this group of athletic guys, with an eye towards how to get our best guys out there and use them the right way. All those guys you spoke about have played into that discussion. We have some really young guys like Hayden Pierce and Reggie Nesbitt who are really ahead of their time. Reggie came direct [last year] and Hayden came from the prep school. So they're both just in their second year out of high school but they're both doing a really nice job. So that's encouraging in the second row.

ArmySports.com: Steve Erzringer ended spring playing Mike linebacker and now he's back at Rover. Are you keeping him at Rover?
Rich Ellerson: Yes.

ArmySports.com: You mentioned Hayden Pierce. I saw Hayden play free safety at the prep school last year. You mentioned him in the linebacker discussion and I've seen him listed as a linebacker [on official football website Goarmysports.com] on roster. Are you looking at him at Rover?
Rich Ellerson: No. I'm not sure where you saw that. He's been playing our strong safety position. Both he and Reggie Nesbitt are working at SAM safety. You can play those linebackers a couple of different ways. I'm going to try to take advantage of both Reggie and Hayden ability to play in that space.

ArmySports.com: Recently you received a big loss with Antuan Aaron going down for the year with a career ending injury at boundary cornerback. Who are you looking to replace him?
Rich Ellerson: There is Waverly Washington; he's probably the go to guy. He was number one most of the spring. Waverly can play both field and boundary [cornerback]. Justin Allen has made the transition back to defense [from wide receiver]. He hurt his ankle and he missed the recent scrimmage but he's done a nice job. Lamar Johnson-Harris from the prep school is doing a great job. He figures into that mix and also James Whittington. Those are your corners. I expect it will look a little bit skewed where you'll have a lot of those guys, because of what happened to Antuan, are stacked up right now into the boundary. The truth is guys like Waverly Washington and L.J. [Harris] have the flexibility to go play in the field [cornerback]. The other guy playing, who doing a nice job, is Marcus Jackson from the prep school who is a future field corner. He played both slotback and cornerback at the prep school. He looks to really have an aptitude about playing corner. He'll get his touches on the football much like JJ (Josh Jackson) did in the kicking game. I think that's probably in Marcus's future as well. That youth that we have moving Justin Allen over [from wide receiver] L.J. and Marcus have really helped the athleticism and depth at the corner position but again their young guys.

ArmySports.com: A cornerback that really impressed coach Simi [head coach of the United States Military Academy Prep school] last year was Marques Avery. He hasn't made a move of the depth chart yet. Is that because he missed a lot of time last year with an injury?
Rich Ellerson: Yeah. Athletically he really is impressive but he did miss so much football. He comes from a tiny, tiny high school program. He missed most of his prep school year [Avery suffered a season ending injury week two last year at USMAPS] so he hasn't played enough football. He's going to be just fine. Right now he's a little bit nicked, he's had a muscle strain which has held him back from playing at full speed. It's just going to take him a little longer. He's got to play a little bit more football but when he does he has tremendous potential. He's a big, fast, physical guy that before this is over he'll find himself in the middle of it. That could be this year or it could be next year but he'll be in the middle of it.

ArmySports.com: Safety is a position Army is very deep at especially after this new class came in. At free safety Thomas Holloway and Tyler Dickson are in a battle to be the starter. It looks like Holloway had taken the lead for a while. How does that position battle shape up?
Rich Ellerson: I don't know about that. Again that's one of those positions, it's a little bit like that defensive end position, that we won't know till we start playing football. They both have done some awfully good things in practice. You're going to have to start playing games before you know who the guy is. Ty Shrader is another one of those guys who now going into his junior year is looking to play his best football. He's a better player now than he's been. As you know, he's played in games since he was a freshman. He played a lot of snaps as a true freshman. As a junior he is really playing his best most confident football. I do feel good about that line[free safety depth chart]. The two younger guys of course are going to be playing their first meaningful reps.

ArmySports.com: At Sam safety Lyle Beloney and Reggie Nesbitt looked to be locked up in a battle after the recent scrimmage. Who looks to be the starter at SAM?
Rich Ellerson: I think what you're going to see is Reggie Nesbitt, Hayden Pierce and Lyle Beloney are going to be all over the place. That will work itself out. How we play that second row on defense is really going to allow us to really leverage that safety line which I like; along with Justin Trimble and some of those guys. It's a real athletic second row on defense with the strong safety, rover linebacker and Mike linebacker having very similar skill sets in our defense. We feel good about the athleticism in the line [at safety] but until we start playing games it's not going to sort itself out.

In Part 4 Rich Ellerson discusses special teams and recruiting.

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