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For Army’s Ellerson, a higher calling

- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 12, 2009

Rich Ellerson has made plenty of changes in his first year as Army coach.

After a two-week evaluation period this spring, he moved more than a dozen players to a different position, most notably 6-foot-10 Ali Villanueva from left tackle to receiver.

But according to his players, the biggest difference Ellerson has made is intangible.

"We go into games expecting to win instead of hoping or thinking we're just going to be competitive and seeing what happens," senior defensive tackle Victor Ugenyi said. "We're supposed to come in and dominate every play, every game. If it doesn't happen, we're looking at film, asking, 'Why didn't we dominate?' "

Army hired Ellerson as its third coach in four years late last year and has received immediate dividends. The Black Knights (5-6) enter Saturday's date with Navy (8-4) at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia with their most wins in a season since 1996. Another victory would snap a seven-game losing streak to the Midshipmen and put Army in the EagleBank Bowl against Temple on Dec. 29 at RFK Stadium.

"Navy has had a solid program established for the past 10 years, but at the same time, we've got a program that is really solid right now," Villanueva said. "We have the talent, the players, the coaches, the plays - everything we need to beat Navy. It's just a matter of going out and believing in ourselves, believing that we can do this."

Ellerson brought with him knowledge of the triple option - having worked alongside former Mids coach Paul Johnson at Hawaii - and the aggressive Double Eagle Flex defense he helped cultivate as defensive coordinator at Arizona. On top of his football pedigree, Ellerson brought a unique love for Army football - his father and two older brothers graduated from West Point.

But his most valuable characteristic has been his unabashed confidence in what he is doing. The Villanueva move drew criticism from Army supporters initially, for example, but the senior has been one of the Black Knights' most potent weapons. He has a team-high 460 yards and five touchdowns.

"They have an idea of what they're trying to get done," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "Prior to this year, they had just changed to the option and [were] trying to feel their way through things. This year coming into it, they didn't have to do that. They had a philosophy and a system, and they were just trying to plug people into that. The players knew early on what they were trying to do, and obviously they've gotten better and better as the year has gone on."

Ellerson's assuredness quickly grew on his players. No longer satisfied just to play, more and more players have put in extra work outside of practice as the season has gone on, an effort spurred by captains Ugenyi and Villanueva.

"This is the right voice, this is the right culture for Army football to have," Ellerson said. "We are on the right path. That senior class will be able to point back [and say], 'I was there when that changed. I was a part of that. I have my fingerprints all over that.' It's going to be positive, and it's going to be successful."