March 6, 2014
After a junior year as NU's rock-solid starter at outside linebacker, Collin Ellis is working this spring to prepare for his new role on the inside. Skip Myslenski talked to Ellis and Hall-of-Fame linebacker Pat Fitzgerald about what his biggest adjustments will be, and why he's suited for the new role.
, who has played primarily on the outside during his 'Cats career, is working this spring as the starting middle linebacker.
"He's physical," said Pat Fitzgerald when asked what attributes of Ellis led to the change. "He's an alligator hunter, right. He likes all those neat [outdoorsy] things that are way over my head. So I think he's got the right temperament to play in there. I think you've got to be that-kind-of-guy to play in there. I think Probs (Damien Proby) had that most recently. Obviously, Bus (David Nwabuisi) had a great run at it. I've coached a lot of guys in there that, they kind of have it, they kind of flirt with it. But unless you love all that nastiness in there, you can't be a great player. It's a nasty, nasty world, and I think Collin really embraces that."
ASKED IF HE WAS A BIG NASTY
as a player, Fitzgerald said, "I think on the field. I think I really enjoyed the physical aspect of the game. I really enjoyed that part." He then described how the demands of that position have changed with the advent and the popularity of the spread offense.
But finally he noted, "I still think though that the innate attributes and the instincts and the attitude are really, really important in there. That's one of the big things that we're looking for when we evaluate linebackers. We try to figure out if they have that kind of demeanor and temperament. It's kind of a make-or-break for me. I'm not a big fan when we're looking at a linebacker and we hear from the head coach, `Does he love the game?' 'Yeah. He kind of likes it.' That's not my kind of guy at any position, but especially at linebacker."
JOEY THIBODEAUX was Ellis's high school coach down in Louisiana and, when asked that question, he said, "He can do everything. And he loves absolutely everything about the game."
"And he did," Fitzgerald said after recounting that moment. "When you watch his high school tape, it's fun to watch. He does everything. Kind of cool. Kind of cool."
HERE IS ONE RELEVANT ANECDOTE from the Collin Ellis scrapbook. Back when he was growing up, back when he was a mere five-year old sprite in the tiny town of St. Gabriel, he and his brother would spend their evenings facing off on their family's front lawn. First the brother would take their glow-in-the-dark Nerf football and tuck it under his arm and charge, and then here came Ellis to cold cock him. "And then, same thing," he once remembered. "I would take the ball and he would hit me. I always loved to hit."
HERE IS ONE RELEVANT RESPONSE from the Collin Ellis quotebook. "It's fun," he said when asked about hitting. "Whenever you really get into somebody and everybody's like, `O-O-O-O-O-O,' it gets your blood going. It gets your blood boiling whenever you can blindside somebody or really stick somebody. When you can impose your will on somebody else, it's really cool."
THERE IS NO QUESTION, then, that Ellis possesses the attitude and the instincts of a Big Nasty. But he has minimal experience in the middle, where his reads and responsibilities are far different from those he had on the outside.
So this is a period of adjustment for him and the biggest of those, said Fitzgerald, is "His eyes. His eyes went from being on a kind of 45 degree angle going through the end men on the line of scrimmage and keying that triangle to now, I'm in the box and I'm keying a different triangle. That's the biggest thing. He's got to get his eyes right. If he gets his eyes right, he can play real fast. Five practices in, he's really, really working at it. I like where he's at right now."
ELLIS HIMSELF PARSED THAT ADJUSTMENT even further. "Whenever you're on the outside," he explained, "you're looking primarily at the third receiver, the tight end or tackle, to the backfield. Whenever you're in the box at Mike you're looking at, we call it the middle triangle. It's guard, center, guard, quarterback, running back, and you're taking your steps off the running back as opposed to, say, the tight end."
Is he far enough along in that adjustment to just react, or is he still thinking about what to do?
"I'm reacting now," he said. "I played Mike in spring last year. So it's something I feel comfortable doing. But obviously I can perfect that and not just be average at it."
THE SWITCH ENTAILS other alterations as well. On the outside there is often contain responsibility, which is not there in the middle, so now he can fly more freely. But, when asked his biggest adjustment this spring, Ellis said, "The biggest thing is I have to be more aggressive coming down the hill. That's something we're really harping on."
Then there is the matter of calling the defensive signals. "I enjoy doing it," he said of that responsibility. "I feel that since I've had such a long journey at linebacker going to different positions, I have a holistic view of what it's like to play linebacker. I've played all three and so it's easier to put all the pieces together having done that. So the calls are pretty much natural because I know what the Will has to do and I know what the Sam has to do."
Finally, he must assume the role of defensive quarterback. "I like that. I like that a lot," he said of handling this crucial spot. "It's a lot more responsibility, I have to take on more responsibility. It makes me have to improve my game in every aspect, from making the calls to being physical and making the fits I have to make so other guys can make plays too."
IN APRIL, after the conclusion of spring practice, Fitzgerald meets individually with each of his players. When he sits down with Ellis, he surmised on Thursday, his first question will probably be, "How's your comfort level with your eyes?"
"My hope by then is that he's feel comfortable," Fitzgerald finally said. "Then at some point in fall ball, in camp, (I hope) it starts to slow down for him. Because in there, if things slow down for you, man, you can make a lot of plays."
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