Not long after Rich Ellerson started his first spring as Army’s football coach last year, he made a move that would be taked about for the entire season.
He took 6-foot-10 offensive lineman Ali Villanueva and moved him to wide receiver, a position Villanueva has never played. The moved paid dividends. It not only made Villanueva the team’s top receiving threat and helped the team win five games, the most since 1996, it also proved that Ellerson wouldn’t hesitate to make any move to help his squad win.
“Obviously, that was an extreme situation,” Ellerson said of Villanueva’s position change. “Guys have to love to play the game more than they love to play a particular position. I tell guys at the beginning of the recruiting process that if they can only be happy playing left end or right tackle or whatever it is, don’t come here because I don’t care. If a guy can only play one position, that’s a bad recruit.”
Army already has gone through nine practices this spring and while Ellerson said there have been no position changes as extreme as Villanueva’s, he has been playing chess with a lot of his pieces.
The biggest change, he said, is moving Kingsley Ehie from fullback to linebacker. Ehie, a senior, is taking a leap of faith like Villanueva, who was also a senior, did the year before.
“The more things you can do and the more things we can project you into doing, the better chance you’re going to be happy in the service, you’re going to find your home,” Ellerson said. “With Kingsley, who was playing fullback last year, here’s a chance, maybe to be more successful. Fullback was something he did well, but he was uncomfortable doing some of the things we asked him to do. But yet, he’s one of the best athletes, if not the best athlete on the football team.”
Ehie’s situation is unique. Ellerson said most of the position changes are happening to freshmen and sophomores who weren’t properly evaluated in the fall. Ellerson said the demands of the academy don’t always provide enough time to see the potential of a certain player.
This spring, he said he’d probably move a half dozen players and hope that the changes stick. He’s already moved Waverley Washington from defensive back to wide receiver and back to defensive back, and several other players have transitioned from one side of the ball to the other.
It helps, Ellerson said, that the academy lifestyle promotes smaller, more athletic players. Army’s biggest player is 290 pounds, but there aren’t many more that venture over 260 pounds. Because of that, Army players are a little more interchangeable. Fullbacks can seamlessly become linebackers, offensive tackles can be defensive ends, wide receivers and running backs can easily fill a void in the defensive secondary.
Obviously, trying to find the perfect position for a recruit isn’t unique to Army, but it's important if Ellerson wants to put the Black Knights into the same triple-option offense that made him successful at Cal Poly. And important Army wants to take that next step toward bowl eligibility.
“We’re gaining on it,” Ellerson said of finally getting his system into place. “Already we’re so much more comfortable doing those skills, executing those skills, seeing the game and reacting to things on the run. It’s not fair to compare this football team to this football team a year ago at this time. We are so much further ahead. We are so much closer.”