Arizona Football

Arizona’s best defensive line coaches started young with connections with head coach

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Rich Ellerson was Arizona’s defensive line coach from 1992-95 after having built a relationship with Dick Tomey at Hawaii.

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Rich Rodriguez’s promotion Wednesday of Vince Amey as Arizona’s defensive line coach gives the 41-year-old Amey his first major break at coaching at the highest level of college football.

Arizona’s best defenses under Larry Smith and Dick Tomey featured very young defensive line coaches who were thrust into their most significant assignment at the time they were brought on board.

Judging from Arizona’s best statistical performances in sacks, rushing defense and total defense — a reflection of solid play on the defensive line — the top three defensive line coaches in the Wildcats’ Pac-10/12 existence (1978 to now) are:

1. Rich Ellerson, defensive line coach from 1992-95.

The Wildcats had 146 sacks from 1992-94, including a school-record 59 in 1993, the height of the Desert Swarm era. Arizona was ranked No. 1 in the nation in rushing defense in 1993 and No. 2 in 1992 and 1994. The Wildcats were No. 2 in total defense in 1992 and 1993 and No. 10 in 1994.

Ellerson was the architect of the Desert Swarm’s multiple 3-4 front with a flex linebacker that was called the double eagle flex defense.

He was only 39 when he started at Arizona in 1992. A Salpointe Catholic grad, Ellerson shared a background with Dick Tomey at Hawaii, where Ellerson played as a linebacker. Ellerson first met Tomey as a graduate assistant at Hawaii in 1977. Tomey employed him as special teams coach there from 1981 to 1983. After Ellerson spent five years as Hawaii’s defensive coordinator, he reunited with Tomey by returning to Tucson to coach the Wildcats’ defensive line in 1992, his big break coaching at a Pac-10 school.

Ellerson, now 63, was the head coach at Cal Poly and Army for 13 years after completing a four-year stretch as Arizona’s defensive coordinator until Tomey’s last season of 2000.

2. Marty Long, defensive line coach from 1996-2003

Marty Long

Marty Long

The Wildcats ranked 12th nationally in rushing defense in 1997 and 1998, and eighth in rushing defense and 21st in total defense in 2000. Arizona had 47 sacks in 1996 and 48 in 1998, the 12-1 season culminating with a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.

Long came to Tucson in 1996 when he was only 32 after coaching mostly at The Citadel, his alma mater, before meeting Ellerson while working as an assistant with the CFL’s Baltimore Stallions in 1994 and 1995. Ellerson attended Baltimore’s summer camps those two years and mentored Long on the finer points of the double flex eagle defense.

Arizona was Long’s first major college coaching experience. After short stints with Nevada and Washington State, Long, now 52, has coached the defensive line at Northwestern the last eight seasons. Northwestern is traditionally strong on defense under Pat Fitzgerald, whose team ranked No. 13 in total defense last season.

3. Bobby April, defensive line coach from 1980-86

Bobby April

Bobby April

Arizona ranked No. 4 nationally in rushing defense in 1984 and ninth in 1985. The Wildcats produced 58 sacks in 1984, a school record until the 1993 Desert Swarm unit had 59. David Wood, a defensive tackle from 1981-84 and father of current Arizona tight end Trevor Wood, established a career record 25 sacks under April’s guidance. That mark was not broken until Tedy Bruschi amassed 55 from 1992 to 1995.

April was only 27 when he followed Larry Smith from Tulane to Arizona in 1980. He was the tight ends coach for Smith at Tulane in 1979. He was only in his fifth season of coaching overall when he arrived in Tucson. He was a high school assistant coach for two years and a graduate assistant at Southern Miss for one season before going to Tulane in 1979.

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April, now 62, coached at USC and Ohio State after leaving Arizona and has spent the last quarter century coaching mostly special teams for nine different NFL teams. His move from the New York Jets to Tennessee recently as the special teams coach opened the door for former Arizona linebacker Brant Boyer to become the Jets’ special teams coach.

Ellerson, Long and April all prospered after getting their break as Arizona’s defensive line coach.

The common thread between Tomey-Ellerson, Tomey-Long and Smith-April: Ellerson, Long and April were young and mostly inexperienced and they had some type of bond with the head coach or coaching staff before coming to Tucson.

The same can be written about Amey’s affiliation with Rodriguez. The Ellerson-Long connection is similar to that of Arizona assistant Charlie Ragle and Amey with their background coaching together at Scottsdale Chaparral High School.

Amey followed Ragle to Tucson in 2012 after Rodriguez hired Ragle to be the assistant director of operations. Ragle has coached the special teams and tight ends in the last three years while Amey toiled as a strength and conditioning assistant and football “analyst”, who helps coaches break down game film.

If Rodriguez filled the defensive line coaching position based on experience, he would not have let 69-year-old veteran Bill Kirelawich go after last season. Amey would not be in the discussion with former Arizona standouts Ricky Hunley and Joe Salave’a if Rodriguez placed a priority on Hunley’s 23-year coaching background and Salave’a’s seven years as a defensive line coach at San Jose State, Arizona and Washington State.

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ARIZONA TOP SACK TEAMS

Year Sacks Defensive Line Coach
1993 59 Rich Ellerson
1984 58 Bob April
1997 47 Marty Long
1994 47 Rich Ellerson
1998 46 Marty Long
1985 41 Bob April
1992 40 Rich Ellerson

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It is obvious coaching staffs are built mostly on relationships and piecing together the right fit.

Tomey did not take a chance on Ellerson and Long without familiarity, nor did Smith with April. A trust was built before those hires.

Rodriguez might catch some flack for hiring Amey, a former ASU defensive tackle, instead bringing in a more experienced defensive line coach, especially with Wildcat roots such as Hunley and Salave’a. The bottom line is this is Rodriguez’s operation and he felt most comfortable with promoting Amey because of his trust in how Amey can coach his defensive linemen.

It has nothing to do with Rodriguez passing over Hunley and Salave’a for Amey. It has everything to do with Amey becoming the top candidate, in Rodriguez’s estimation, because of how the young coach has developed with the existing coaches and players in his program since they arrived in Tucson together in 2012.

ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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