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Army football’s defensive line growing up, in more ways than one

The Army football team officially began its second preseason camp Aug. 2 under head coach Rich Ellerson. Ellerson put his club through a briskly paced two-hour workout in helmets and shorts during the afternoon hours.. (Mike Strasser/West Point Directorate of Public Affairs and Communications)

A few days after the loss at Duke to open the 2018 season, Kwabena Bonsu was still thinking about what could have been. His teammate, Wunmi Oyetuga, approached him in the locker room and told young Bonsu, “It’s a process.”

Bonsu was just a freshman then, one with high expectations, a small spot in the rotation and a veteran mentor in Oyetuga, known to most as Tuga. Bonsu, a disciple of the since-graduated defensive lineman, earned the nickname “Baby Tuga” as a result.

“I hate it,” Bonsu says now. He’s almost completely shed the sobriquet because Oyetuga is no longer anchoring the defensive line. But just as relevant, Bonsu, whose new nickname is “Bonnie Tsunami,” has made quite the splash this offseason.

This defensive line carries with it no household names, a fact not lost upon its senior core of Rod Stoddard, Jacob Covington and Jake Ellington. Even with standout sophomores Bonsu and Nolan Cockrill, this is a unit largely in transition. While most of them have experience from last year, none were regular contributors.

The stories of Ellington and Covington are interlocked, and not just because they are best friends. They both came to Army as linebackers, not heavy enough to plant their hand on the ground but nearly too big to start at outside linebacker. Covington learned this earlier than Ellington.

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“First couple weeks as linebacker didn’t go as planned,” Covington said.

Ellington made the switch at the start of his junior season, inspired by former Black Knight Alex Aukerman and his willingness to play with versatility on the defense. Like an extra on a movie set, Ellington just wanted to fit in the frame however he could. “I’m really just here to help the team out,” he said, after learning that he’d been moved up to first-class on the defensive alignment.

Head coach Jeff Monken is still mystified how Ellington and Covington have not only put on a considerable amount of weight but also managed to stay in the upper 200s, their hulking figures casting long, thick shadows on the field.

“They’re guys that really care about this team,” Monken said.

They care so much, in fact, that at the beginning of the year, the senior defensive linemen compiled a list of seven things they’d need to do perfectly to be successful this season. The first was to always play with a high motor. Or, as Ellington describes it, “Run to the ball. Run to the ball. Run to the ball.” There are others that are more general: Be self-disciplined. Play with a positive attitude.

Then there’s the one that Ellington and Covington came up with together: Be accountable. It extends into the classroom, in military duties and in being leaders for the younger defensive linemen on the team. Guys like Bonsu.

“You’ll be hearing his name quite a bit,” Covington said of the sophomore.

The downside of having a bunch of linemen without significant playing time from the season prior is just that: a lack of game experience. But the upshot is that no one is entering this season with a sense of entitlement. They all know that the position could be theirs. Or, it could be someone else’s.

This fact is not lost on Bonsu, who has shown his commitment to the process Oyetuga talked to him about nearly a year prior. It’s not lost on his teammates, either.

“He’s definitely grown up,” Covington said. “He’s not Baby Tuga anymore. He’s Bonnie.”

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© 2019 The Times Herald-Record