Ross Els Q&A: 'The kids are eager to learn the new system'
Things have to improve at Purdue. Darrell Hazell knows this, which is why his staff has been radically altered. In all, there are five new assistants—and a holdover in a new role. Perhaps no new assistant is more vital than defensive coordinator Ross Els. He was coaching high school ball in Nebraska last year—now, he has one of the biggest rehab projects in the Big Ten.
The defense Els inherits in West Lafayette is a mess. Where to begin? How about learning how to stop the run? Last year, the Boilermaker defense was shredded for a league-high 214.9 rushing yards a game in 2015. Development of the line is critical, which is why that unit has a new coach in former Boilermaker d-line coach Randy Melvin.
On the interior—a huge concern–Jake Replogle, Ra’Zahn Howard and Eddy Wilson, among others, need to step up. And who will rush the passer? Gelen Robinson? Evan Panfil? Antoine Miles? Shayne Henley? Once billed as the “den of defensive ends,” there is no one even remotely close to being the next Shaun Phillips, Cliff Avril, Rosevelt Colvin or Ryan Kerrigan on this roster.
Els brings a good resume to Purdue. The four years before working at a high school, Els coached linebackers at Nebraska for Bo Pelini from 2011-14. Els helped the Cornhuskers to a 37-16 record and four bowl appearances: 2012 and 2013 Capital One, 2014 Gator and 2014 Holiday. Under Els’ guidance, NU linebacker Lavonte David was named the 2011 Big Ten Linebacker of the Year and was one of six finalists for the Butkus Award.
I caught up with Els—who last was a defensive coordinator from 2003-04 at New Mexico State–during spring drills this week to get his assessment of how things are going in West Lafayette.
Q: How is the defense coming along this spring?
A: The kids are eager to learn the new system. They want to be successful. We are having issues with a lot of adjustments. When the offense doesn’t show us exactly what a normal offense might do, we have a little bit of trouble making adjustments. But that’s OK. We wanted to get through this spring and have the base fundamentals of what we want to be technique-wise and scheme-wise. I think that’s coming along well.
Q: How would you describe your scheme?
A: We will start to operate out of a base 4-3. Will we be simplistic? It depends on what we need to do to slow down the offense. We can be simplistic. But if we get to the point where if we stay in the same defense, and it is tough on our kids, we can be multiple. We have put a fair amount of things in. Nothing compared to what we’ll have in the fall but enough to be able to give them some different looks. We want to teach them the concepts. We have a bunch of different concepts of defenses. If we can teach one defense with each concept, then your adjustments are easier—whether it is two-high safeties, one-high safeties, pressures … all sorts of different concepts we want to get done and teaching a little bit of each concept will help us to make adjustments.
Q: How can you improve the run defense?
A: I have watched very little of last year’s film, so I don’t know what was good or bad. I do know we have to stop the run. And it starts with good fundamental play up front. Randy Melvin is our defensive line coach and has been in the NFL, with Miami and some good programs. They have done a great job up front. I think that’s one of our strengths. Technique and making sure you have enough people are keys. We have been working hard at it.
Q: You have a background working with linebackers. How are Purdue’s looking?
A: We are deep. We have several guys who have a lot of playing experience. They played three linebackers a lot last year. This is by far our deepest position. Now we have to find the right guys who have the coverage and run-stopping skills. Sometimes, that’s hard to do. I like how they are coming along. It’s more of a mental game for them. Once they get the scheme down, I think we’ll be fine.
Q: You worked with Frank Solich at Ohio. What did he teach you?
A: First, you learn how to treat people. He is a good man. A loyal man. He also is very organized and will make you be very accountable as an assistant. Also, you learn toughness. I remember at one of our meetings, he demonstrated an attack-through angle and almost sent one of our players flying. He’s still very active.
Q: What did you learn from Bo Pelini?
A: What a fantastic guy to work under. Very loyal to his staff. Very, very loyal to his players. With Bo, it’s a lot of scheme. He’s a defensive genius. A combination of how to defend the run and pass at the same time. You better be sound against both, otherwise they will pick you apart. You learn a lot of scheme from him. The character of those two is what stands out the most. I have worked with some great guys who are family guys and treat the kids right. The kids loved both of those guys.
Q: Did you know Darrell Hazell before you took this job?
A: I didn’t know him more than a wave-hello-how-are-you way. He was at Ohio State as an assistant and I was at Ohio U as an assistant. We would go work the Ohio State camp.
Q: As an ex-Nebraska assistant, how will your familiarity with the Big Ten West be a benefit?
A: There have been a lot of changes since I was at Nebraska. But it will help to recall what we did against, say, Iowa and Northwestern. I know how they may block some things and how they will look. But if we start running a lot of what we did at Nebraska, they will say the same thing. It works both ways, but I am very comfortable with the Big Ten West.
Q: What will it be like to go back and play at Nebraska?
A: It will be fine. It is like every other game. Once the whistle blows, you forget about that garbage. But it will be good because most of my family is still there. Then, it’s game time.
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