Where Ellerson failed; What Monken can learn

Rich Ellerson (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

George Santayana once said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." For an institution like the United States Military Academy built on excellence and achievement it's been beyond frustration to see the past six Army coaches fail. Army tries, once again, to become successful on the gridiron with its hiring of Jeff Monken as the 37th head coach in Army football history.

George Santayana once said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." For an institution like the United States Military Academy built on excellence and achievement it's been beyond frustration to see the past six Army coaches fail. Army tries, once again, to become successful on the gridiron with its hiring of Jeff Monken as the 37th head coach in Army football history. Monken joins West Point after a successful four year tenure as a head coach at Georgia Southern. Some Army football fans enthusiasm about the hiring of Monken is tempered by the fact Army just fired a similarly successful FCS coach who five years ago seemed ideal for the position.

On December 26, 2008 most Army fans were happy with the news another Rich Ellerson was hired as the new Army head football coach. Stan Brock's Army team had just been dominated and humiliated 34-0 by Navy for the second consecutive year. Ellerson's resume seemed perfect. He just completed an impressive 56-34 run (622%) in his eight years at Cal Poly, turning around a Division I-AA engineering school with high academic standards. He had great success finding and developing talent. Ellerson used an explosive spread option attack at Cal Poly, that averaged 44.4 points per game in 2008, which he had learned from Paul Johnson himself when they both coached at Hawaii. Ellerson himself was a renowned defensive coach with his own proven Double Eagle flex system. He had West Point ties in his father and two brothers who graduated from West Point. His brother John had captained the football team.

Ellerson began his coaching career at Army with a generally solid 5-7 rebuilding year. Army was competitive mostly due to a defense that ranked 16h in the nation. In 2010 Ellerson led the Black Knights to their first winning season since 1996. Ian Shields had revamped his offense using a half wishbone formation and Army scored 346 points which was the most since 1996. A defense that was ranked 29th in the nation in total defense was built around quick end Josh McNary, mike linebacker Stephen Anderson, nose tackle Mike Gann and free safety Donovan Travis. The season ended with a win over the Southern Methodist University Mustangs in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl which was the first bowl win for program in 25 years.

Army collapsed the last three years under Ellerson losing 28 of its last 36 games. Army's triple option rushing offense was effective at times in leading the nation in rushing in 2011 and 2012 but the Black Knights were plagued by a porous defense, too many fumbles and inconsistent special teams. Ellerson teams were just 1-9 against fellow service academy teams. Losing five consecutive times to Navy will get any Army coach fired. What went wrong and why did Ellerson fail at West Point? What can Jeff Monken learn from Ellerson's mistakes and how is he positioned to overcome them in the future. ArmySports.com will offer our opinions on recruiting, coaching and preparation.

The loss of the the 2009 and 2010 defensive line recruiting class.

After the successful 2010 season the starting defensive line of Josh McNary, Mike Gann, Marcus Hinton graduated and top backup Chris Swain was an academic casualty. The graduating seniors were all part of Bobby Ross last USMAPS class in 2006. Stan Brock had recruited fairly well on the offensive side of the ball landing Trent Steelman, Frank Allen and Malcolm Brown among others. However, on the defensive side of the ball the front seven had the Mackey brothers, Nate Combs and little else. There was a lack of size and depth and no upperclassmen able to play. The Ellerson plan was to retool with the top two defensive lineman from the 2009 United States Military Academy Prep School class in three-star recruit Julius Warmsley, the explosive Jamal Mtshali and a direct admit Joel Cox who had been named as Indiana's Mr Football for defensive linemen.

Warmsley and Mtshali both graduated the prep school but surprisingly passed on their appointments to West Point. Warmsley signed with Tulane where he was a starting defensive tackle for a number of years. He was named First Team All-Conference USA this past year. Jamal Mtshali signed with the Delaware Blue Hens. Joel Cox was a medical DQ and unable to attend West Point. He ended up the starting nose tackle for bowl bound Ball State. In 2011 without those players Army was forced to play with two linebackers as ends and defensive ends as tackles. Serious knee injuries to Jarrett Mackey and Nate Combs followed which limited their playing time and in the case of Mackey his effectiveness. The results were ugly. Without any ability to recruit quick fix 4-star recruits or JUCO players to fill these gaps the staff tried to develop the underclassmen. Talented Jacob Drozd who starting in 2011 as a freshman quit football to focus on track at West Point. Bobby Kough emerged as the best of the lot but he was only the third best player on his 2009 prep team. This talent void was the reason the Black struggled so much against the run the past three years.

Jeff Monken will at least inherits a senior laden if not very talented defensive line in Kough, Richard Glover and Mike Ugenyi. Glover and Ugenyi's play did improve last year. There is some potential help in 275-pound freshman Ammon Tiumaunei. He was impressive at USMAPS in 2012. Ammon has nice size and ability and should be ready to contribute as a sophomore. Andrew McLean, the top 2013 defensive line recruit, also played well at USMAPS this past fall. Linebacking is a real concern. Holloway will be returning from a broken leg and his instincts aren't great. Hopefully, the linebackers at Prep in 2012, Andrew King and Jeremy Timpf, are ready to play. Sal Interdonato of the Times Herald-Record reported Alex Meier will be back this spring so that should be a plus. Marcus Polling is a very good athlete but his tackling and ability to diagnose plays leaves a lot to be desired. If he gets down the fundamentals he has the athleticism to be a player. Maybe the quick end types James Kelly, Dalton Mendenhall can transition here. Monken needs to focus his recruiting efforts here to upgrade the depth, speed and size.

Recruiting attrition

Service academies football teams always face attrition; it's part of the reality. Rich Ellerson's classes weren't nearly as deep as Navy or Air Force. He did improve the quality of recruits but he lost too many of them. Army lacked the depth in the classes to offset the loss of players who could have helped. Freshman honorable mention safety Brandon Fusilier-Jeffires left due to academics after just one season. Devonte Anderson was a top cornerback out of California who left during Beast Barracks. He's earned All-League honors with 12 career interceptions in three years at Stony Brook. Bryce Flowers was another California recruit who was a big play threat. He had three kickoff returns for touchdowns at USMAPS. He was Phil Steele Preseason College Football Second Team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference as a kickoff returner and earned freshman of the year honors at Western Carolina. Casey Hughes was the lead for the Rover spot in spring practice before he left for Vanderbilt where he is a star special teams performer. Talented defensive backs Courtney Fort and Tim Kamana left the Prep School for Wyoming. Offensive lineman James Meagher signed last year with Boise State. Nate Guidry left for Kansas State. Quentin Kantaris, a backup to Josh McNary as a plebe, left for Northern Arizona. Army would have been a lot better team if even half of these players stayed and provided Ellerson more options on defense. Monken has experience coaching and recruiting at a service academy. He needs to improve the depth and speed of Army's recruiting classes. One of the positives with hiring Monken is that he probably won't suffer the heavy attrition Ellerson did in his first two classes. Monken already understands how service academy recruiting works from his years at Navy.

The recruiting model

Army's best success on the recruiting trail proved to be from the Cal Poly guys out west under Ellerson. The recruiting on the East Coast, down South, Texas and in talent rich Florida by other members of the staff was generally unimpressive. Ellerson surprisingly didn't complete that much against Air Force and Navy for recruits. When he did match up against Air Force they would also often swoop in and grab recruits that had verbally committed or were planning to visit West Point. Ellerson's laid back manner, while considerate to a player's long term commitment, at times allowed him to be outmaneuvered for athletes. Ellerson initially dismissed summer camps as a valuable recruiting tool while Navy and Air Force took advantage of them. When Ellerson finally relented this past summer the staff landed a number of quality early commitments including two Scout.com three-star rated recruits. Ellerson let some of his older staff slide when it came to recruiting. A few of the coaches didn't add much value on the recruiting trail.

Monken is a lot more aggressive. He will not make some of these mistakes. He'll compete more on a head-to-head basis with the fellow service academies. He will leverage camps and be a lot more proactive than Ellerson. I expect Monken's staff will do a better job recruiting the south and Florida simply based on their recruiting success at Georgia Southern. Army must improve in Texas and recruit better in the Northeast. Monken should keep at least one of the Cal Poly assistants who have done a solid job recruiting on the West Coast.

Fundamentals and coaching

Ellerson's game plans were usually solid. The staff had a good understanding of their systems and X's & O's. Army just had too many breakdowns in fundamental technique over the last few years. Too often players would make the same mistakes and the staff struggled to find answers. Players often made the same mistakes as juniors that they did at freshmen.

Watching Jeff Monken in a postgame news conference this year criticize his Georgia Southern team after a 77-9 blowout victory illustrates his attention to detail. Monken's intensity and focus will be a welcomed departure from Ellerson who was too laissez faire towards mistakes and mental breakdowns and often didn't hold coaches accountable until this past off season after it was too late.

Leadership

Ellerson had a rather professorial manner and thought process combined with a coach speak vocabulary. He tended to be rather stoic and unattached on the sidelines. He was often distant, aloof and curt with his players. As Geoffrey Bacon said after the 2013 Navy game, Ellerson had tried to become more of a player's coach his past year. It was too late. A number of former football starters like Jared McFarlin, Brian Cobbs and Jacob Drozd quit the football team but stayed at West Point and competed for the track team. Potential contributors in speedy Marcus Jackson and quarterback recruit Blake McPhearson also left the football team for the track team. Blake McPherson was a great athlete and had the highest plebe score for the Army Physical Fitness Test after he completed Beast Barracks but bailed on football. While all of these decisions are not Ellerson's fault, a coach with the personality of Jeff Monken might have prevented some of these players who could have helped from leaving the football team. Ellerson also created drama for himself when he threw well liked nose guard AJ Mackey off the team in the off season over issues regarding the rehabilitation of his knee injury. It was, in my opinion, counterproductive because AJ Mackey could have helped in 2012 and his brother Jarrett was an eventual team captain and leader. Ellerson speeches often were based on playing hard every play even when you are losing, not exactly inspiring stuff. You could watch him talking to the team in the series "Game of Honor" if you need to fall asleep.

Monken's strength is not that he will yell at his players. You can hire an Army drill Sergeant to do that and pay him a lot less. Monken's is from a family of coaches who understand motivation and coaching preparation. At Georgia Southern he took over a losing team that had gone 21-23 for the previous coach and had just 63 players on scholarship. Monken has demonstrated the ability to get players to play hard and maximize their ability. That was often missing under Ellerson. Ellerson seemed to identify with the plight of an Army football cadet as he spent an inordinate amount of time and effort into rearranging football practice to 6 AM in the morning. I'm not sure if Monken will keep the morning sessions but I am sure it won't detract from his focus on improving the team and maximizing its practice and weight training schedules like it did with Ellerson. Superintendent Lieutenant General Robert Caslen felt leadership from the head coach was a key missing ingredient and a major reason for making the change. Monken is a huge improvement on this front.

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