In an exclusive interview a few days before the season opener, I spoke with head coach Rich Ellerson…
One-on-one with Rich Ellerson, part 3
ArmySports.com: Since nose tackle Mike Gann graduated you seemed to have played less with a nose guard and more with the defensive tackles over the guards. Will this continue this fall or do you play to go back to playing the offset nose tackle?
Rich Ellerson: We'll get in there some. We'll be like we have always want to be. We're multiple. We've got the double eagle flex. We move the flex around. That's one of my reasons for optimism is that Mike Ugenyi and Bobby Kough. A lot of people who love to have them playing defensive tackle for them. Ugenyi is a tough hombre. He's got great power load. I'm encouraged about him. He's got a chance to help us, I think.
ArmySports.com: Defensive quick end Jarrett Mackey's knee wasn't ready for the start of the season. What's his time table to return?
Rich Ellerson: I'm not surprised. Typically with some like that with an ACL you're talking about a year. His was more than just a regular ACL. It was a significant injury. I think we're going to get some really good football out of him but I think it's going to be in the second half of the year before he starts to make an impact. He's a December grad and will have another year. I want to make sure we don't push it too fast. He's starting to practice. We keep him in a different color jersey so we don't let the tempo get away from him. He's taking some three-quarter speed reps in practice so he's not too many weeks away but I think the over/under for him is about October.
ArmySports.com: I was impressed last year with the defensive line at USMAPS. Tala "TJ" Atimalala was the starting nose tackle and Dalton Mendenhall at end were very good players at prep last season. Do you believe they can help as plebes this year on the defensive line?
Rich Ellerson: Mendenhall is now playing the flex position for us. It's a little bit different position from where he played at the prep school. We think it's going to be great for him. He's got the running back background. Every plebe handles that year [freshman] differently. He's one of the guys who is in the mix. TJ is the interior lineman who closest to the bar. So those two guys out of the defensive front, TJ and Dalton, are the guys that are with the "A"-squad taking meaningful practice reps. My hope is that they don't have to play much. I always think that's the best thing for freshman to do. Their close enough to the game that their getting meaningful preparation. They're preparing mentally and emotionally for each contest yet you don't lean on them too much. Last year we ended up leaning on those guys [freshmen] too much I thought. We're going to benefit from that this year I think. Last year that was painful. I think this year's a little healthier.
ArmySports.com: Since we're discussing the plebes, the secondary at USMAPS last fall had Chris Carnegie, Alex Meier, Shaquille Tolbert and Brandon Fusilier Jeffires who played very well. How have they looked after beast barracks this summer?
Rich Ellerson: Of those there are three in the back end in similar situations; Chris Carnegie, Alex Meier, and Brandon Fusilier Jeffires. I have Fusilier Jeffires playing free safety with Ty Shrader. I've got Alex Meier working at Mike. We've got Chris [Carnegie] at corner. All those guys are on the two deep [depth chart]. The good news is their very close to the field, they're going to play in the kicking game, those guys are going to get dirty on Saturday but right now, the good news is, they don't have to carry the load just yet. They may in the course of the season have to step into the fray. As you said they're very gifted guys.
ArmySports.com: I've noticed that since Stephen Anderson, a true middle linebacker graduated, in your system the SAM [safety] and the Mike have been interchangeable. You run them inside out. Is that just the way the defense is designed to run to the ball?
Rich Ellerson: The Mike is always inside out. The Rover and SAM are almost interchangeable. It depends how you manage formations. We're doing that a little differently this year. SAM and Rover are essentially identical. Mike is the guy who stays inside out. The other guy is your flex guy [bandit] which is Nate Combs and he's inside out but a little bit closer to the ball.
ArmySports.com: How has Nate Combs performed this camp? He missed spring practice after having surgery.
Rich Ellerson: Nate is one of the great stories. He didn't do anything this spring. He was just trying to get his body right. He's had a great summer. Knock on wood. He's healthy; he's big, strong and fast. All last year I thought he was dragging the leg around [after knee surgery]. He's one hundred percent and looks great. He's looked better than he looked all of last year.
ArmySports.com: I was disappointed that Nate's backup at Bandit, Jacob Drozd, left the program to focus on track only. With Jacob gone who is backing up Nate Combs at Bandit?
Rich Ellerson: Corey Watts is the backup. We lost him for a couple of weeks [this summer] with a shoulder sprain. He hasn't had as many practice reps as of late but he's back out there. [note this was a few days before the opener]. Like his brother he's got great initial quickness and pop. Julian Holloway is in there. He was a defensive end at the Prep school that was moved over. After that there is Dalton Mendenhall who we discussed.
ArmySports.com: How has Tyler Dickson looked after the position switch from safety to boundary cornerback?
Rich Ellerson: Good. That was a good move for us. He's athletic as anybody. He matches up with corners all across the country athletically. It's a matter of experience and presence. It's been really competitive between him and Justin Allen. Competition as I said is a wonderful thing. That's really helped [Tyler] I think.
ArmySports.com: Is [cornerback] Waverly Washington still hurt?
Rich Ellerson: In training camp he got hurt right away. [the first week] He's working back into it and he's doing some good things in practice. That's a positive and as I said Chris Carnegie is keeping Josh Jackson attention at field cornerback. As you know Chris is as gifted a guy, he's a presence with toughness.
ArmySports.com: We know Josh Jackson will handle the field cornerback spot. He has two back up cornerbacks that have ability in Marques Avery and last year boundary cornerback starter Lamar Johnson Harris who have been battling injuries. Where are they right now?
Rich Ellerson: Marques has had a good preseason. He's been as healthy as he's ever been. He's been so hurt so often. He's been so frustrated. Now he's been able to have a solid preseason camp. He's had a lot of repetitions, a lot of turns. Again he's a guy that will get dirty on Saturday in the kicking game. I think between he [Avery] and Chris [Carnegie] they're in the mix to help. L.J. still had that terrible broken bone in his leg. He's not quite what he was but he's on the mend.
Note: Avery had a very impressive debut at USMAPS in 2010 only to hurt his shoulder and miss the rest of the prep season. Last fall he missed all of his plebe year after injuring his other shoulder in camp.
ArmySports.com: After all these years why did you change the terminology of the whip linebacker to bandit and the strong side defensive end to whip?
Rich Ellerson: We sort of borrowed those job descriptions. We've made the end, if you will, the rush end the "Q" [Quick end] and the Whip which is our boundary end. That's now what we're calling whip. It's just who's doing the flexing and when. It's a little bit of a hybrid and it's a place we've been before.
ArmySports.com: Eric Osteen won the kicking job this spring. Dan Grochowski was very impressive and clutch last year at the prep school. Who's in the lead for the job?
Rich Ellerson: It's very close. Grochowski is slightly ahead. You'll see both during the course of the season. That's one of those battles that you don't know what's going to happen till you get out there in a game environment to see who can handle it. The good news is unlike last year we just didn't have a bull pen to go to, this year if somebody starts to struggle like poor Alex [Carlton] did last year we have a bullpen for them. I'm really impressed with Eric's leg strength. It's so good. He really went to school on the place kicking. He's shorted his approach. I wouldn't be worried with him as our placekicker. I think at the end of the day that maybe "Groch" might be something special. Until you've gone into a competitive situation I just reserve judgment.
ArmySports.com: One question on Grochowski, I know he was rock solid on field goals but his approach to his kickoffs seemed short and usually only reached the 10-yard line at USMAPS even though he has a pretty strong leg.
Rich Ellerson: He'll have a chance to grow into that, obviously because Eric Osteen is as good as there is, but your right. "Groch" has that potential to be that kind of a kickoff guy but he has work to do.