Ellison running with plenty to prove

First, he heard the snap. Next, he heard the crack.

Then came the silence.

It was the second game of Morgan Ellison’s sophomore year of high school in Columbus, Ohio and things had been going well. Until that moment, at least.

Zipping out of the backfield, heading to his right, Ellison picked up five yards, then five more. Ellison’s charge continued until a defender caught him and fell onto his left leg, breaking it and bringing his high school career to a halt.

“I just remember it was so silent in the stadium,” Ellison said. “I’m just laying there and you could hear a pin drop in the stadium. It was so quiet and everybody’s just silent, then you hear the ambulance come a little later.”

Doctors eventually fixed that broken leg, got Ellison back to speed as a junior and helped him return to the game that was going to take him places.

Then it happened again — two broken legs in two years. First the left, then then right.

A promising future was put on hold, while doubt filled Ellison’s head. Would he ever play? Was this game not meant to be?

Two years later at Indiana, this once-hidden gem from the heart of Ohio is eager to make up for time lost.

“Sometimes you take a chance on a kid and he ends up being a special one,” IU coach Tom Allen said. “I think he’s going to be that kind of guy.”

Ellison demonstrated his potential during last week’s win over Georgia Southern, picking up All-Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors after rushing for 186 yards and two scores.

Getting to that point was a triumph in itself.

Few major-conference schools were willing to take a chance on a player with a serious injury history, let alone a high school experience that ammounted to merely one season on the field.

During the spring of his junior year, having gone nearly two full seasons without playing a game, Ellison was considered merely a two-star prospect with only one scholarship offer from Toledo.

Bigger programs like Ohio State and Wisconsin expressed interest, but shied away from offering. For a time, Indiana did, too.

Schools at the Mid-American Conference level, including programs such as Bowling Green and Ohio, where Ellison originally committed last November, had few qualms about taking a chance on a powerful back with plenty to prove. But Ellison was intent on showing he belonged in Big Ten company.

He did so by earning first team Associated Press All-Ohio honors during his lone season at Pickerington Central High School — he played his sophomore year at Pickerington North — rushing for 1,841 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior.

Former IU running backs coach Deland McCullough had long been interested in Ellison, but there was a reluctance to pull the trigger on an offer. Only when a linebacker that Indiana coveted opted to commit elsewhere in January did the Hoosiers extend their final scholarship — the only Big Ten offer Ellison received.

“We basically went through and missed on a linebacker that we wanted, so we had another spot to utilize and actually took him in that spot because we felt like he was a big body that you could utilize,” Allen said. “(We) said, ‘Hey, if he’s not a running back, he could be a linebacker.’ That was our thought process when we took him.”

So Ellison was the final player to commit to IU’s 2017 recruiting class, doing so on National Signing Day.

After all that time lost to injuries, Ellison finally had direction. His future was set.

Or, so he thought.

By late February, nearly a month after signing day, McCullough left IU for a similar postion at Southern California. Ellison was napping when news broke.

“Somebody sent me a screenshot,” Ellison said. “… I was like, ‘What?’ I texted my dad and he was like, ‘No way,’ because this was the only coach I knew here. It was so late in the process and everybody had been committed. Coach McCullough was the only guy I talked to. It was after signing day, too. I was a little nervous.”

Safeties coach Noah Joseph quickly narrowed in to establish a relationship with Ellison so that future Hoosiers would have a connection to IU’s staff in Bloomington. Meanwhile, IU was in the process of hiring former Michigan star Mike Hart as its new running backs coach.

Ellison was only small child while Hart was running over Big Ten defenses a decade ago, so the name wasn’t familiar.

Soon, it would be.

“I grew up in Ohio. I hated Michigan,” Ellison said. “I went back when I found out he’s my coach and I started watching the film like, ‘Ohhhh, this guy’s the truth right here.’ … People, when they found out he was gonna be our coach, they were like, ‘Hey, you gotta get you coach’s autograph for me,’ back at home. I didn’t know he was like that.”

Ellison, meanwhile, has drawn comparisons to another Big Ten back — former Hoosier Jordan Howard. Like Howard, Ellison runs hard and falls forward, the kind of player who can turn a loss into a two-yard gain.

During IU’s first few practices without pads last month, Ellison’s new teammates were concerned he was running too hard.

A former rugby player, that’s simply Ellison’s style.

“He has a tempo about him where he’s gonna play hard,” IU offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. “He’s gonna continue to fight for YAC — yards after contact. That’s just kind of his mindset, which is really good.”

It makes sense. After two bad breaks and a couple lost seasons, Ellison has plenty to prove.

Like this week, for instance.

Sure, Ellison’s rushing output against Georgia Southern was impressive, but No. 4 Penn State on Saturday will present a much greater challenge.

So Allen’s challenge to the freshman is clear.

“Run like that against a Big Ten opponent,” the coach said.

Ellison says he’s eager to do so. For years, he’s been waiting for a chance like this.

4 comments

  1. Better two broken legs than two torn ACLs, MCLs, etc. Great story and a great get by IU’s coaching staff. This young man has courage, determination and perseverance in abundance. IU’s recruiting strategy should prioritize and target excellent HS players who suffer such injuries only to see their offers from powerhouse programs withdrawn. Given the quality of today’s orthopedic medicine, making a full recovery from what used to be a career-ending injuries is far more likely. Drew Brees’ shoulder injury comes to mind. And with some shrewd medical analysis and evaluation, it’s a great way for IU to sign higher quality football talent. With proper medical care and some time to make a full recovery, players like Ellison offer low down-side and major up-side to programs like IU, who, if he remained healthy throughout HS, probably would not have given IU a second thought. And the mental toughness that young men like Ellison develop as a result of overcoming such setbacks is as valuable as their physical ability.

  2. Ellison is a great story and IU got a back that likely would have gone to one of the top B1G schools. I just don’t see Majette as #1 RB the way they list him. Ellison and Gest have shown more in this short season and deserve more carries in games. I can see Majette and Williams as 3rd down backs.
    I am glad Ellison is at IU and RB looks bright with the recruits coming in to play after this year.

  3. Well, let’s be fair to Majette. He played against OSU and Virginia. Those two schools were infinitely better defenses than Georgia Southern. Not saying that Ellison is not a better talent. In time I think he will be outstanding. But Majette is being evaluated on his performance against two power-five conference defenses, both of which were far superior to Georgia Southern. We need another game or two before we can do a fair comparison between Majette and Ellison.

  4. I’ve judged Majette for multiple seasons. He is not a starting B1G RB. He is a needed ST’s contributor and a rotational RB best used as v stated. A 3rd down option. His rushing skills are no where comparable to the Frosh and RS Frosh RB’s. As the season progresses, barring injuries, his offensive playing time will diminish.

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