....schedules of Army's football players, as well as filling me in on his plans for the offense in 2009.
Adam Nettina (AN): Can you give me a sense of where your team is right now as you transition from the spring season to the preseason?
Rich Ellerson: (Laughs.) Well, they are all over the map. Summers at West Point are a moving target, as you know. Your offseason program, your summer training routine…one size does not fit all, or does not fit more than two guys. We have a number of guys on leave, we have a number of guys out in the Army spending time with the units at different posts around the country and the world, and we will have (coming up shortly) most of our rising sophomores out at Camp Buckner by the middle of June. We have a handful of seniors right now who are out at camp Buckner who are doing something that will be very common to our seniors in the future, and there are only a handful of them doing it this year…But it will be quite a challenge [for those players] because they are in the field quite a bit. Obviously our freshmen will come into Beast Barracks towards the end of June and they will have their own challenge, so like I said we have a number of diverse training routines and combinations of leave and training and summer school which put us all over the map. Frankly we have taken that challenge very seriously…we wanted to make sure we gave every guy an opportunity to keep the "arrow up" in terms of his physical development. We are supporting all those efforts - whether they be in the field or here [at West Point] - appropriately. We are trying to back them up nutritionally and trying to give them the training routine that will compliment what it is that they are being asked to do during the day. For some of those guys – if you are going to summer school or if you're on leave – the training routine probably looks like it does at every other school. If you're out at Camp Buckner or you're out there doing training exercises, then we need to take into account what you've done during the day before we decide what you should do when you have a few moments to lift weights. We want to support the whole thing nutritionally to the degree that we can. Like I say, it's a dynamic equation but we are having a lot of fun trying to unwind it and the attitude has been positive.
AN: On that same point, we've had a number of questions about summer training, and whether or not there are steps being taken to make it a little more conducive to maintaining the fitness of the players involved. Can you detail your philosophy when it comes to how you approach the nature of supporting these activities?
RE: Frankly what we are trying to do is to pull our players in the same direction [as West Point and its mission statement]. What we have asked for is ‘where is it appropriate and consistent where we won't interrupt or in any way won't compromise the training where we can have a point of contact with the guys?' It's so we can bring our resources to bear on that training routine…we don't want to compromise what [the players] are doing or experiencing in the summer because frankly we believe that those experiences come back to us. Those things that they are experiencing in the field – whether we are talking about anything from Beast Barracks to following lieutenants around in the field- all of those things come back to us in terms of our team culture and our development. I believe it is palpable, and I think it will show up on the scoreboard. So we don't want to - in any way, shape or form – subvert those activities. What we want to do is to compliment them in an appropriate way to keep the arrow going up physically. As you know, weight is not a big issue for us…what we are trying to do is to protect their strength, their explosiveness, and keep those gains that they have made through the spring and during their downtime. We want to make sure they are able to maintain some of that strength and explosiveness…If they find themselves losing weight during one of those three week cycles, well it is probably appropriate that they should have. We'll find out…every evolution here is for the first time with us, but we have spent a lot of time on the front end. The thing that we want to make sure that we are consistent about is that we really value – as a football program and not just as ‘West Point'- we value what is taking place in the field. We value the team building, the leadership development, and the experiences that these guys are having and believe that [those experiences] are going to come back to us and help us. I mean they did not design these things to help us become a good football team but the truth is that if we pay attention, and if we tap into this reservoir of strength that we are building, then [summer training] will help us be a good football team.
AN: Let's talk about what is going on "on the field." What major goals do you think you and your staff accomplished during spring camp, and where do you go from here in preparing your team for the season?
RE: Well, I think what we were able to do was that from a personnel standpoint we got guys competing in the proper lines. We had guys and situations where we had to divvy some talent up as the job descriptions changed because of the way the defense and the offense changed…the job descriptions physically and the physical profile for the different positions changed. Once that was done, then we had to establish a way to practice, and a routine…how we train and how we reinforced fundamentals…the technical part of the game. Then we put in our systems…the plays, the patterns, the coverages, the fronts, the stunts, all of those sorts of things. Now, we are not close to being complete there, but we have certainly embraced the fundamentals and we have learned how to practice, and it was impressive to see how quickly the guys were able to adapt to a very different practice environment and how they just took to it like ducks in the water. They really enjoyed it and got an awful lot done, and that is behind us… [but] it is going to take some time. It takes repetition and it takes time and they will be much better when they come back in August, but by position and by individuals we have gone away with a short list of things to try to take a step forward. As I told the guys coming out [of spring ball]; ‘we can not afford to take a step back.' What we are looking to do before we step back on the field in August is that everyone has a short list of things that they want to do and train and reinforce and take a step forward…we expect that we will be physically ready to go when we hit the ground here in August, but the greater challenge for us right now is whether we can pick a couple of things that are fundamental to our defense and offense and actually improve between now and August on those things. We've got a plan, and we'll see how we do.
AN: How different is your offense and coach Shields' offense from the offense that coach Brock tried to install last year? Do you find it an advantage that some of the players you inherit have triple option experience, or do you find that you have to go back and ‘unteach' previous experience and re-teach your offense to certain players?
RE: There are a couple of guys that are going to benefit from the move [last season]. But there is enough different [between the two offenses] that it is not universal…there has been enough movement in terms of who is playing what position and some of that experience which might have otherwise come to the party was left on the sideline last year. But there are some guys - and some key guys – who will absolutely benefit from the experiences that they had last fall.
AN: Is Chip Bowden one of those players?
Is he your starting quarterback going into camp at this point?
RE: Yes, going in. And again that remains competitive. We insist that it remain competitive, but coming out of spring he is the starting quarterback.
Check back next week as we reveal Part Two of my preseason conversation with Army head coach Rich Ellerson, and find out what he told me about his offensive line, the nature of option football, and what he expects from the incoming USMAPS players in 2009.
Adam Nettina is welcomes reader questions and feedback. His can be reached at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com