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Last February, Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini hired Lincoln native Ross Els to replace Mike Ekeler as the Huskers' linebacker coach. Els, who played at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, has coached under three former Huskers - Barney Cotton at Hastings College, Tony Samuel at New Mexico State and Frank Solich at Ohio. So he's assimilated Nebraska culture from the past. Having visited Bo Pelini three times at LSU and three times at Nebraska, he's also embraced the outside-the-box philosophies of Nebraska's head coach and his brother, Carl, a former fellow staff member at Ohio. Els sat down this week for a conversation with the N-Sider.
Q: You've been invited to speak to the Nebraska Coaches Association on July 27 at Lincoln North Star High School. What ground do you intend to cover and what's the core message you want to leave for prep coaches across the state?
A: I want to cover a couple of different things. My talk on linebacker technique and drills will be a teaching type thing for the coaches that are there. In things like this, I think it's important we don't get too involved in scheme because if we don't run the same scheme as these coaches are working with, it's a waste of time for them. That's why I talk about drills that can be applied to any situation. The other thing I'm going to hit home on is high school football in Nebraska is what I grew up with and shaped who I am. The college game was interesting, the Huskers were interesting and pro football was interesting. But for me, it was all high school football in Nebraska, and I just want to let these guys know how important they are and what they do for the youth of this state because I lived it. I remember going to high school games when I was a kid, and when I played, that was it. It was hard to find a place to sit at Seacrest Field. There were great rivalries, and it really applied to all sports. Of course, kids are specializing a lot more now, but when I played, most of us played all three sports, or at least two, and you played against the same kids every single day. It was a special time.
Q: You grew up in Lincoln and played for your dad, Bob, who was head coach at Lincoln Northeast. Describe what it was like living and breathing football every day and why the game got so deep in your blood that you made it your life's work.
A: I think that whatever you are exposed to and whatever environment you grow up in, that's what you're going to end up being like. That's going to be the type of person that you are, good or bad. Obviously, with my dad being a head coach, we spent a lot of time following what he did. My kids are the same way. When it's so passionate to the coach, you can't help but feel that same passion as a kid. That was what the majority of our conversations were growing up, and it's same way now in my own family.
Q: How exciting is it for your dad to have a direct connect to the hometown Huskers?
A: Actually, my mother is even more excited because she now gets all six of her grandkids in town (including Ross and Jane Els' three children). From a pure football standpoint, I know my dad has always wanted us a little closer to home so he can watch the teams that I coach and be closer to family, so it's a big deal for both of my parents. My dad and I really enjoyed going to Cambridge this summer to help Jack Guggenmos and Dick Beechner raise some money for the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame Foundation. We played Wild Horse in Gothenburg on Friday and joined a lot of coaches the next day in the tournament at Cambridge. They were great people, and we really enjoyed that weekend.
Q: You now work for a coach that many believe is the greatest defensive mind in college football. Coming from a football family, who - besides Bo Pelini - would you find it fascinating to work for among all coaches, whether they're legends or relative unknowns, past or present?
A: The innovators. It's tough to name names because you're always going to leave somebody out. I'm thinking of people, like Bo, that think outside of the box - coaches that do things a little bit differently, yet have success. You like to work for the great teachers of this game. In order to do this job right, you have to know the game like the innovators know it, but you also, more importantly, have to get it across to the kids that play for you. If we can't get across to our players to do what we're asking them to do, athletically and motivationally, then we're falling short. I didn't want to name names, but when you think of innovator and teacher, you think Tom Osborne. I didn't have the opportunity to play for him (Els played at the University of Nebraska-Omaha), but knowing a lot of people who played for him and coached with him. you know that offensively, Nebraska was a little bit different than most people, and they stuck with that. Certainly, whenever I watched Nebraska play, you knew they were great teachers and always well prepared.
Q: If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, past or present, who would you choose?
A: Jesus Christ. There's only been one perfect man to walk this earth, and He was it. He would be the one I'd pick to set my head right.
Q: One of your links to Bo came through his brother, Carl Pelini. You spent three years working with Carl at Ohio. Can you confirm - once and for all - the raging debate that has been going on in that family for years - the debate that Carl, Nebraska's fourth-year defensive coordinator, is actually the smarter of the two?
A: (Two seconds of hearty laughter here). I will neither confirm nor deny that statement. I'll tell you what. When you get those two in a meeting room, they are very similar, and I think it's their ability to think outside the box that we talked about. They'll say we don't have to do things like we've always done. Even though they've had a lot of success defensively in the last three years, we're still changing a lot every single day. I think they both have that mindset, and it's fun to watch. It's a neat environment to be in. If you're in any profession, and you have that kind of passion around you, you're probably going to be pretty successful if you continue to think that way, and I think the Pelinis epitomize that.
Q: You spent six years working on the Ohio University staff of Frank Solich, a popular player in the Bob Devaney era before becoming a longtime assistant for Tom Osborne and then succeeding him as head coach. Solich led Nebraska to a Big 12 championship and also guided the Huskers to a national championship game in the Rose Bowl. What was it like working for Frank and how supportive was he in encouraging you to coach at his alma mater?
A: Working for Frank was a great learning experience for me, as was every stop that I've had in coaching. You can go right down the list of the guys I've learned the game from and, more importantly, how to treat people. In playing for and coaching with Frank, you learn accountability. He gives you a job, and he expects it to be done and be done right, and he did a very good job of that. Frank also did a great job of hiring a staff for the MAC (Mid-American Conference), which obviously doesn't have the budget that this place does. The people that he brought in were all innovators and teachers, and we just had an absolute ball coaching together. He's turned that program around. He's done a fantastic job and will continue to do so. I think they're picked to win the MAC East again this year. Shoot, we hadn't been to a bowl game since 1968 before we got there. As far as support, from day one, Frank said: "Guys, I'm looking out for your career. If you can go to a better situation than what we're in right now, I'm going to be behind you 100 percent. There's no question that he meant what he said. As long as you keep him informed, he's supportive all the time.
Q: Barney Cotton is probably the primary link between you and Nebraska because he recommended that you follow him as head coach at Hastings (Neb.) College, and he was a major lobbyist to bring you onboard at Nebraska. What makes Barney tick and after spending the spring here, are you sensing an offensive resurgence that starts in the heart of his interior line?
A: What makes Barney tick in the workplace is the same thing at home. He's a hard-working, ethical man. You want your players to be coached by a man like Barney Cotton. He's going to do things right, and he's not going to cut corners. He's going to work very, very diligently to get things done right.
Q: Are you sensing an offensive resurgence, something that has to start up front?
A: They're physical, I know that. Man, do they have them coming off the ball. It's just too early to tell how successful they're going to be, but there's a huge amount of excitement. Anytime there's a change, there's going to be excitement, and they're excited because our offense is new.
A: (laughter) That's like a Carl/Bo thing, and I'm not biting. Barney and Christine (Barney's wife) are a great combination. Anything we've needed in this whole transition, Christine is the one that Jane (Ross's wife) has called. What doctors do you recommend? Where's a good place to live? They're just fantastic people, and they've done a great job raising three boys. Ben is an absolute leader for us. He's one of our best leaders, and that's a reflection of his dad. Jake just got moved right before spring ball. Man, can he run. He's physical, and he's gaining weight and he's going to be special.
Q: Here's an easy multiple choice for you. Where's the best place to live - Omaha, where you played college football? Hastings, Cedar Falls, Iowa, Las Cruces, New Mexico or Athens, Ohio - your first four stops in coaching? Or Lincoln, your hometown?
A: (Laughter) I'm not dumb. I like my family, so Lincoln's No. 1. There's no question. This is home. My wife's from here. We even went to junior high together. At the end of July, we'll celebrate our 24th anniversary. We have a daughter who will be playing volleyball at Doane College, so she'll be 20 minutes from our door, and I'm glad she chose to go somewhere close. We also have boy and girl twins that will be in eighth grade.
Q: At 45, you hit the football version of a lottery ticket when Bo called right before national signing day and asked if you might be interested in coaching Nebraska's linebackers. What was more exciting - that phone call or the first reel of film you saw on Lavonte David?
A: Both were pretty special. When Coach (Mike) Ekeler left, I stayed in touch with a couple of coaches here, but they never really knew anything. Bo keeps everything very close to the vest in the hiring process, and understandably so, even with his assistants. They did not know what he was going to do. It was a neat deal, and Bo handled it the right way. He let us get through our recruiting class at Ohio and didn't mess that up, and I was so appreciative of that. As far as Lavonte, it doesn't take long to see why he's so special.
Q: David set the Nebraska single season record with 152 tackles last season. You've watched every play on film. Why is he so special?
A: No. 1, he's a very intelligent linebacker, and you have to be with all the multiple offenses we see. No. 2, he studies hard. He is intense in the meeting rooms and on his own to learn what that offense is going to do. No. 3, he has an innate knack to find the football. It might not be actually where he is supposed to be, but he will go the other direction to find it. That takes a special linebacker to think: "Okay, I've done my job first. Now, let's go find the football." He does that, and fourthly, he's physical. Plus, his foot speed is as good as anybody's, and he's a tough kid. I think he's the whole package. We'll have to see.
A: Will is running our show out there as our MIKE linebacker needs to do. He's very vocal. He's very intelligent. He's very tough. He'll get us lined up, and he'll make a ton of plays for us. When we see all of these two-back sets in the Big Ten, we need a big, tough, physical MIKE linebacker. Fish has come on very, very well. My understanding is his progression is ahead of what is normally needed with the broken leg he suffered in fall camp last year. He's another very intelligent player, probably a 4.0 (in pre-med). He needs live repetition that Compton has had and David has had. Whenever he did get them last spring, he did very well.
Q: Who are some up-and-comers at the linebacker position? Can you share names?
A: Not really. I think we have a group of second- and third-team guys that are very, very close to being ready to play every down, and they need to be that way. To me, they're a lot like Fisher. They have not had many game reps. We need to get them game-speed ready by the time we play Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Q: How fast will this defense be and how confident are you plotting schemes with Carl - a guy you've coached with for three years?
A: We're going to be fast. That's one of the things that we always talk about in recruiting, and it's one thing I always look for - foot speed. With Carl, there's a lot of carryover with what we ran at Ohio. We would go visit with Bo or Carl. I'll see things we run here at Nebraska that we ran four years ago when Carl was on staff at Ohio and brought over here, so I'm already used to some of the things they're doing here right now. I visited Bo three times when he was at LSU and another three times since he's been at Nebraska. I think they wanted something besides just another teacher. They wanted familiarity and someone who really believed in the defense. And I certainly do because Coach Burrow (ex-Husker and now Ohio assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow) implemented the majority of things that Bo was doing at both places (LSU and Nebraska). It worked well for us at Ohio, and I think Bo wanted somebody here that could take that and learn the changes they've made. You know when you only spend two days with the guy, it's hard to get everything down. He just wanted someone who had an overall grasp of what he's doing.
Q: What's Bo's greatest strength and why do he and Carl match up so well?
A: I think it's his personality. He's so genuine. As everybody knows, whatever is going through his head is going to be reflected, and he's going to get that point across. There's not a lot of gray with Bo, and that's great with me. I'm a math guy, and I want a yes/no answer. When you run a program, that's the way it should be, and the kids appreciate that, good or bad. They want feedback. Don't be gray because you can't be gray out there on the football field. Bo and Carl both have the ability to think outside the box. I don't care how successful we've been. The offenses we're going to play see what we do, so we need to keep changing. Bo and Carl are both great innovators, and they work well together. That should help us get better.
Q: Give us a hint about what Corey Raymond brings to the table as Nebraska's secondary coach.
A: Corey brings two things immediately. No. 1, he's a great teacher. He has played the position. He has coached the position. He understands the fine details that it's going to take, technique-wise, to get the job done. No. 2, having spent those years with Bo at LSU, he also understands the scheme and can hit the ground running. When we say we're going to run cover-whatever, he can say: "Yeah, I remember that at LSU. In 2007." Those are two great things to bring to the table.
Q: John Papuchis is considered a bit of a rising star. Can there be a better fit for Nebraska?
A: Talk about sharing passion and philosophy. When you get Carl and J.P. (Papuchis) and Bo in the same room, boy, do they jell well, not only because they've done it for three years together, but with J.P. being with Bo the three years before that, you have something. J.P. has the whole package. How many Division 1 guys are recruiting coordinator, special team coordinator and coach the entire defensive line? I'm going to say none, other than J.P. He takes all of those responsibilities on and gets them done because he's extremely organized and highly intelligent. He's the whole package in coaching, and he'll burn that midnight oil.
Q: Last question: You spent an entire spring going against Nebraska's new offense. We know the proof of the pudding will be what happens this fall, but can you give us a sneak preview on what you're expecting on the offensive side of the ball?
A: You already know there's always excitement when there's change. I have no idea what happened in the past, and I would never comment on that because I wasn't here. But I can guarantee you this offensively: We will be physical. Everybody says that. That doesn't mean you're always going to line up with two tight ends and two backs. Well, if that's what it takes, we will. But we will be a very, very physical team offensively. We're going to have answers to problems. To me, we're diverse, but not complicated. Our guys have done a good job of putting a package together that the kids understand. There were not very many mistakes out there in the spring. If we need to run a spread offense, we'll run a spread offense. If we need to run a two-back, we'll run a two-back, just like we did in the spring game. We are a diverse offense, and there are many, many things that are going to be good for us on the offensive side of the ball this fall.