Adam Nettina (AN): There has been a lot of talk recently about last year’s USMAPS MVP, quarterback Trent Steelman. A number of fans have openly speculated that he will win the starting quarterback job at some point during the year. Can you comment on your expectations for both Trent and the other members of the incoming freshmen class?
Rich Ellerson (RE): I can’t speak to [Trent] in particular. Until [the prep school players] are here on campus they are still recruitable student athletes…but I can speak generically about guys from the prep school and the quarterback position from the prep school, and I will say that that the depth of our team is set up for some of those guys to come in and have a chance to compete.
AN: How do you feel specifically about the transition that many of your new offensive linemen have made? Is that something you are content with right now or are you really looking to bolster and reinforce the unit during fall camp?
RE: Absolutely. The arrow has to stay up, and you hit the nail on the head right there. We have some guys who are just doing a great job and we are very, very encouraged about the moves that we made and that we have the right guys trying to do the right things. We were frustrated a little bit during the spring because a couple of those guys who we think have a real upside on the line had a ‘pulled this’ or ‘strained that’ and didn’t get as many turns as I would have ideally liked them to…but there is no substitute for repetitions, and for experiencing things whether it be in practice or ultimately in a game environment. So while I am encouraged by the athleticism and combativeness from the guys we have in competing in those lines, I know that this is a process and that it is not ‘add water and get instant football player.’ They’ve got to put the reps in and they’ve got to put in the hard work and experience, and then the game will slow down for them…So, I am encouraged and I think we are making great progress [on the line], but I know it is still a process.
AN: I remember that when he was at Navy, Paul Johnson used to talk about how his offense was limited when defenses forced it inside a “phone booth” Given that Chip Bowden and Colin Mooney accounted for so much of the offense between the hash marks last season, how important is it for you establish a perimeter presence either in the run or pass game? Is there anyone who has shown the ability to be a ‘playmaker’ on the perimeter?
RE: That is the offense. We will be able to distribute the ball, and we will be able to compliment those other strengths. As you know Paul and I are great friends and I am a disciple of option football. And [offensive coordinator Ian Shields] of course comes from a slightly different option school but we are all cousins and we all see this thing essentially the same way…we understand that you have to be able to attack the field and obviously an option team does it a little differently than most folks, but that is still what it is designed to do. It is designed to, as you said, get out of the ‘phone booth’ when the ‘phone booth’ isn’t where you should be. If you’re in the ‘phone booth’ by yourself then you are going to knock yourself out. If it starts to get crowded in there then you’ve got to find a way out.
AN: Has there been anyone specific over the course of the spring who has jumped out in your mind as being that ‘go-to guy’ who can give the perimeter game a much needed boost?
RE: Yes [pauses]…I think Pat Mealy was the guy who came out of spring as the most complete guy, but there are some exciting additions…I’m not going to name names because some of those guys were not there for all of spring or were there for just a little bit of spring but I think there were a couple of guys and that we have, and a couple of guys who we are expecting to come in as plebes…again that is another position where there is another possibility for a guy we haven’t heard of before to step in and be in the mix [for playing time].
AN: One of the major struggles of this team over the past few years has been turnover margin. How do you emphasize ball security with so many position changes on offense, especially with the amount of players transitioning to skill positions who may not have been asked to carry the ball in the past?
RE: Well, you’re talking about one of the keys to victory. Turnovers and the ability to get them and the ability to take care of the football on the offensive side of the ball are fundamental to success. There is no short-cut; you become great on the offensive side of the ball, and you become great - not good, but great - with the fundamentals associated with that kind of football. If you are going to do something like the triple option you have to be precise. And again, you have to be willing to invest the time in practice to become precise in that part of the offense. Ideally in all of the offense, but especially in that part of it…We are going to have great fundamentals associated with the football. We are going to take great pride in it, we are going to reinforce those fundamentals daily, and we are going to challenge those fundamentals every time we step on the field. On the defensive side of the ball we take great pride in our ball awareness. We are aware of the football and we have the tools and we know how to take the thing away. And again, we reinforce those tools daily and routinely, and we reinforce them throughout the practice environment. We understand – just as you pointed out – that we have to get the turnover thing working for us.
Tune in next week as we debut the final part of my preseason conversation with coach Ellerson, and find out what he thinks the ‘keys to victory’ will be for Army’s defense heading into 2009!