February 25, 2012

GBK EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with HC Rich Ellerson - Part I

On Dec. 26, 2008, Rich Ellerson was named Army's 36th head football coach, clearly putting him and his new staff behind the eight ball when it came to recruiting and football operations in general.
But two years later, the mission statement came to past as got back on the winning track evident by the team's 2010 postseason game and victory. The Black Knights' registered a 16-14 win over SMU in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl locking down Army's first winning season since 1996.
But that was then and this is 2012, where Head Coach Rich Ellerson's who mode of football operation continues to be consistent with the institutional (West Point) mission. The goal remains the same and if the staff is able to get the football program in lock step with the larger mission, this program has more than just a chance to be consistently successful, both on and off the field.

That is one of several ongoing challenges when you coach at Army, but one of the biggest hurdles is proverbial chant ... "Go Army, Beat Navy (& Air Force). Of course, where that journey starts is with recruiting and where that's most compelling is that the Black Knights still don't do great recruiting against Air Force and Navy. Especially on prospects who are still trying to figure out what it (the academies) is. But if there are 10 prospects, Army is getting 2-3 of them and that's 2 or 3 more than the program was use to getting.

However, what is more important is that the staff is getting 2-3 of the right recruits. Out of all the guys that the staff have recruited in 2011-12, at least ten were multiple academy recruits. Which means that the staff is finding a core of players that want the destination of West Point, whereby the staffs of the other academies are not.

This is a staff that is not interested in getting players committed to play football at Army and attend West Point, but to get the young men who will wear the black & gold to arrive at West Point and prospering, along with embracing the journey.

GoBlackKnights.com had a chance to catch-up with the Army mentor, Rich Ellerson for a time Q&A as he talks about the program, incoming recruiting class, current players and much more. Here is Part I of our two part series.

GBK: Coach, you are always looking for ways to make the program better and you have gone to a different practice format this spring. Can share with the fans what exactly is the new formula and how is it working thus far?

Ellerson:We're doing some things in the morning and I'm encouraged by that ... it really makes the day flow well for the guys. I really feel like it's the most right that it's felt since I've been here in terms of how the day flows.

The guys are eating a better breakfast, getting to bed earlier, we are losing fewer minutes in the course of the day that we are able to reinvest back into that recovery time. Now that we are actually practicing, we'll see. We're going to use the weekend ... we're using the one class schedule days to practice on, so it's Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and we have to use some Saturdays' to get those three good training sessions in a week. During spring ball we use both Saturday and Sunday to get our practices in. We'll see what we feel like coming out of these next couple of three days, because we are going to go three days in a roll here and we'll see how that feels.

A little bit of it's all new, but I'm encouraged by the schedule, I'm encouraged by the efficiency of the schedule. We've helped our guys make good decisions that they have to make on there own and we are just that much more efficient. One of my pet peeves is breakfast and we are eating a better breakfast because we are awake, we've trained and I think it's paying off for us in the classroom. When we leave here in the morning, we are that much focused on what we are doing in the classroom and what we are doing with the rest of our day.

GBK: Unlike most programs across the nation, there's one thing for the Army staff to get a verbal commitment and the signing of the "Certificate" of Intent versus ensuring that the prospect is completely accepted into West Point ... hence arriving on "R" Day. I know you can't talk about specific players, but overall can you talk about the 2012 Recruiting Class?

Obviously it's an ongoing process and there are still a couple of guys that are on the board that we think that could be in, but aren't quite in yet. As you pointed out in your question, until they get here, they're not here.

But yes, we have some extraordinary guys, but you also take a step back and recognize how young they are, where you are always looking through a developmental mirror. You are projecting out from a guy that you watched when he was 17 years old and your projecting him to what he's going to look like when he's 21-22 ... and that's hard to do. We think we understand that model as well as anybody and we really like who we've attracted. We recruit to the destination (West Point) and we haven't experienced too much internal attrition, where most of the guys who stay, prosper. I think that is because of the voice we use in recruiting that continues to be encouraging. We don't spend a lot of time with guys that don't want to do it, because we sift that population on the front in of the process. I would like to feel that if we are bringing in 10 guys on a visit, we are still getting 6 or 7 who want to come when it's all said and done.

And that's pretty efficient by anyone's standards. But as I said, they aren't here yet, so until they are here, you don't relax too much. Obviously the guys (Class of 2012) that have been through that process they are excited about coming and we are excited to have them. Call me in a couple of years and ask that question {laughing}.

You can ask me now how recruiting went two years ago. I was really excited about that first recruiting class that we evaluated beginning in the spring through the fall, recruited them in the winter, sent most of them to prep school and now they are here as either as second semester sophomores or freshmen. I was really encouraged about that class and I continue to be, where we were spot on in terms of our evaluations and expectations.

There were some negative surprises in there and some positive surprises in there. But as a class, that group and how they were recruited and remember, that was before we had the prep school up here (West Point) and that's when they were going to Fort Monmouth. I couldn't be more excited about that prospect and I think we have a similar if not better group coming in behind them. We feel like the group that we just recruited ... well there's that much talent on the board. It feels every bit as good to me if not better than it has the last two years, at this point ... it that makes sense.

GBK: Speaking of evolution, freshman fullback Larry Dixon showed that he can be a force, are there any other plebes, soon to be sophomores that you feel could have an impact on the 2012 season?

You mentioned one it Larry (Dixon). There were times where you had Ryan Powis at center and Larry Dixon is the easy one because he's touching the ball. But Ryan Powis touch the ball on every snap down the stretch and I think he's an extraordinary. I'm encouraged with Angel (Santiago), I'm encouraged with the freshman running back situation with Terry Baggett, who played as a true freshman. He's an exciting guy to watch, because obviously he's just now ... he's not a year out of high school yet and he's running with the first group. The upside there is that you just don't know how far and how fast he can go.

He felt like Fraser (Stephen) came on ... we needed him late in the year to step up and he did, and he continues to be impressive. Hayden Tippett is in the same class and he's a solid football player; Hayden was in the same high school class as Larry and those guys, but he came direct. So when you talk about that whole recruiting class

So you've got that crowd up there, you've got Shumaker (Stephen) on the offensive line, who's jumped in the middle of it, you've got Mo-Mo (Michael Kime) is part of the class, but he's having to sit out this spring because of his shoulder. But he's one of those guys who was direct (admission to West Point) and he started a couple of games as a freshman.

So yeah, those guys are all over the place and defensively you have guys like Geoffery Bacon, who obviously if we can keep him healthy, looks like he can still the show. Holt Zalneraitis, who was pressed into services as an interior d-lineman is really a defensive end, but he's a direct guy and part of the same recruiting class.

Then you have Hayden Pierce and again, started as much as he was healthy for and was an impactful player.

There are others of course, and I felt good about those guys when we recruited them and those good feelings have been validated.

As I am looking at them in the 2nd half of their freshman and sophomore years here at West Point ... we were right. Two and a half years ago when I was excited about that we had recruited these guys, they were still in high school, we recruited them and they committed to being here.

I felt good about them then and I feel better about them now. But we have to continue to do a good job with them developmentally because they are still really at the beginning of that. Like I said, they are less than two years out of high school and we have a lot of work left to do. So how we manage their developmental journey here will be really critical. But there's definitely great raw material in that class.

I feel just as good about the group who are here as direct freshmen that joined that crowd as well as the guys that are currently at the prep school.

I feel like that was another really good class and the group that's on the board right now (Recruiting Class of 2012), that are still in high school and that are coming either direct or prep, I feel every bit as good about. They are good or better than those guys, at least at this stage of the game relative to potential.

It's interesting, let's say you look at Navy and Air Forces recruiting class, and you look at all the quote on quote stars and I think we've got 2-3 guys with stars (via Rivals.com rankings). Which tells you that we have our on evaluation model and it works ... works really well. But we have continued to evolve it and expand it, based on something we've obviously done before and we've tried to adjust it to a national model and to the service academy destination.

You know some of the young guys that captivate me or the recruits who are the siblings of current players. Those are the guys that obviously have a great insight ... they know more about our locker room and the institution than I do. And their big brother is not going to let them do something that they aren't excited about and not proud of themselves. Yeah, they will tell you, yeah hey ... we heard it's hard, but is something they want and proud. That tells you that you have something going on internally that's right.

What I also think is interesting about this class (2012) is the number of guys that had Division I offers .... real interest from other Division I schools that choose to come and go to the prep school. That makes so much sense to a prospect, now that it's (USMAPS) here at West Point. They can look at the facility and it's there, it's tangible. When you articulate that developmental journey it makes sense to young man and he's parents.

You aren't showing them pictures of a place in New Jersey (Fort Monmouth), you're showing them this spectacular facility over here by Washington Gate.

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