‘D-Mac’ not in Kansas anymore

The public address announcer at Garden City High was practically chanting Demarcus Elliott’s nickname through the fall of 2017.

“D-Mac!” was proclaimed after the 300-pound defensive tackle powered into the backfield, coming up with one of his 18.5 tackles for loss.

“D-Mac!” was called out, again, after each of his three blocked field goals.

“D-Mac with the sack!” rang out more than a few times, a delightful rhyme for Buffalo fans.

Many of D-Mac’s younger teammates at Garden City never learned his actual first name, because the nickname was all they heard, repeated over and over.

But cries of D-Mac over the PA didn’t seem to travel beyond the Garden City stands. As a senior, the state’s defensive player of the year had one Division I offer, Kansas State. It was a grayshirt, meaning he would have to pay his own way for the fall semester. His scholarship wouldn’t kick in until the spring.

The slights still puzzle Elliott, who just started his first game for Indiana last weekend. It took a year at Garden City Community College for Elliott to dispel the notions that slowed his recruitment — that he was overweight, that he didn’t move all that well, that he was better suited for the offensive line.

Since his arrival at IU in June, he’s received nothing but praise for his relentless, physical nature.

“What a great get,” IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “Sometimes you worry taking a guy late and how that will pan out. But, obviously, early on for us, he’s panned out in a very big way.”

The contradictions fail to make sense, but everyone will know what D-Mac is about soon enough. IU is preparing for No. 6 Ohio State this week, and the sophomore Elliott will be right in the middle of the Hoosier defense.

Exactly where he wants to be.

“Everyone talks about the Big Ten, SEC, the two best conferences,” Elliott said. “I wanted to be on the big stage and prove I can play with anybody.”

For whatever reason, Elliott had difficulty making that case in Garden City. Maybe it’s because colleges doubted the level of competition he faced in southwest Kansas. Maybe it’s because the local JUCO program steals attention from the high school.

Whatever the cause, Elliott was in recruiting purgatory. Because the in-state schools weren’t biting, the out-of-states were dismissive. Because the out-of-states weren’t jumping in, Kansas State and Kansas could slow-play him.

He thinks back to the biggest games of his prep career, including a 14-tackle effort in an upset win over Topeka in the second round of the 2017 state playoffs. Elliott made three straight tackles for loss to seal a 24-21 result.

No offers.

“I really thought that game was going to be something that people would finally think he had arrived, or he had enough tape — whatever excuses they were using, we could squash it,” said Brian Hill, Elliott’s high school coach. “Kansas State, if no one outside the state is offering, they slow-play them. They offered him a grayshirt, and the way they went about it, it seemed like they didn’t really want him. Like they were doing it out of pity.”

Instead of grayshirting, Elliott decided to bet on himself and play at Garden City Community College. It was a natural choice, considering it’s the same route his father took to D-I football.

James Elliott, a native of Newport News, Va., starred for Garden City in the early 1990s. Talented enough for Division I, his grades just weren’t up to par. He was also a bit of a freelancer at linebacker.

The coaching staff at Garden City moved the 240-pounder to fullback and then running back. Hill was his quarterback, handing him the ball 30 times a game out of the I-formation.

James became a 1,000-yard rusher for the Broncbusters before he transferred to Oklahoma State and started at linebacker.

“He was relentless in how he played,” Hill said. “I’ve never seen a guy move that fast and do the things he did. It’s just funny, I remember Demarcus, seeing him the first time as a freshman, looking into his face mask. It was like looking at James from years ago.”

Demarcus inherited a lot from James. He was athletic enough to play tight end through middle school, and his game-winning, one-handed catch in an eighth-grade overtime game proliferated on YouTube. Parents in the stands yelled out “D-Mac!” and cemented the nickname for years to come. D-Mac also became a power forward for the varsity basketball team.

Aside from his physical gifts, James made sure his son had a motor. Throttling down would always be a greater concern with an Elliott.

“They kicked me out of the flag league,” James said. “They wouldn’t let me coach because they were complaining I was making the kids too aggressive.”

Elliott was a high-energy, highly coachable star for Hill. Those intangibles just didn’t resonate with Kansas State and Kansas. So D-Mac stayed in Garden City to prove himself against D-I bounce-backs and other top-tier JUCO talent.

He chose the same number as his dad, No. 1.

“Everyone wants to grow up and be like their dad,” Elliott said. “I wanted to show he had a good two seasons there, and I wanted to show him I could just be like him.”

James picked No. 1 for a reason, which fit his son’s purposes, as well.

“It stands out,” James said. “You put that No. 1 jersey on, everyone knows it when they see it.”

D-Mac lived up to the number, helping fortify Garden City’s line on its way to the NJCAA title game. But Elliott’s recruitment with D-I schools still lagged, possibly over confusion about whether he intended to spend a second year at the JUCO level. At one point in the spring, UMass was Elliott’s best offer.

His father wanted him to take it.

“It felt like there wasn’t nothing else coming,” James said. “He wanted Power 5. He wasn’t going to stop until he got it.”

Their break finally came when Jeff Sims, Elliott’s JUCO coach, placed a call to IU. Sims was once a recruiting coordinator for the Hoosiers.

Elliott visited Bloomington on May 3. Interest built from there. West Virginia, Iowa State, Texas Tech, and Kansas checked in. James Elliott already knew Kansas coach Les Miles from when he was an assistant at Oklahoma State in the ‘90s. But the Hoosiers had already promised D-Mac a chance to play.

“All of a sudden, Les Miles called,” James said, “and I was like ‘Dude, you should have done that a long time ago.’”

IU was very much in need of defensive line help for 2019. While redshirt junior Jerome Johnson was a known quantity at three-technique, there was no obvious choice at the nose. A program that has stuck to recruiting true freshmen and developing them made an exception for two JUCO linemen, Elliott and former Hoosier Juan Harris (Independence CC).

At fall camp, D-Mac made an impression.

According to Kane Wommack, Elliott is physical at the point of attack. He isn’t just a “plugger,” or a run-stuffer, but someone who can move laterally, transitioning from closing gaps to getting upfield and rushing the passer.

Against Eastern Illinois last week, Elliott had four tackles, including one for loss.

“He’s a pretty gifted player and a very strong interior force,” Wommack said. “Him and Juan Harris have been truly difference-makers for our interior d-line.”

The Ohio State offensive line will be a test like none other for Elliott. But he came to Bloomington in search of smash-mouth football.

The mostly quiet, reserved sophomore lights up when the Buckeyes are mentioned.

“Growing up, you watch them on TV and you know all about Ohio State,” Elliott said. “I’m going to get a little anxious, but at the end of the day, you just have to step up and go head-to-head with them.”

Back in Garden City, more than a few people are watching. Of course, there is James, who is either FaceTiming his son or forwarding YouTube clips of NFL tackles like Aaron Donald. Hill keeps in touch, texting, but also making sure he has all the necessary channels to watch D-Mac play on Saturdays.

He just has to get over his dislike of the color red. Garden City’s main rival, Dodge City, wears crimson. In the past, Hill has made kids change shirts when they’ve mistakenly worn red to the weight room. There is an exception now.

“As long as it says Indiana and we know Demarcus is playing there, I’ll allow them to wear a red shirt and support Indiana,” Hill said. “But no red Under Armour or Nike. You wouldn’t catch me dead in red.”

Despite the colors involved, Hill is proud to see D-Mac on the biggest stage.

Where he belongs.

“We talk about hard work and dedication and taking a chance on yourself to get the attention and play college football,” Hill said. “He’s now the trophy I can point to for these kids. They know who he is and what he’s accomplished.

“There are a lot of IU fans in Garden City.”

4 comments

  1. Nice job with this piece, Blau Lauer.

    I did find it very uplifting and the young man sounds very promising…It also sort of reaffirms some stereotypes of Indiana Football which are heartwarming but, arguably, some of our long term troubles.
    Translated: If you can’t get a date to the ‘BIG” prom, a fallback plan can always be Harrietta “Jabba the Hutt-Hut” Hoosier(the not-so-attractive sister of Haley “Hot Hurryin” Hoosier).

  2. This may be one of several “diamonds in the rough” that Iu has recruited. I love these stories, and I hope D-Mac goes on have great success and continues to inspire many other young men whose potential is over-looked.

    Didn’t I just hear that about 50% of players in the NFL were un-drafted free agents? Think about that. With all the money and resources the NFL teams have, and 50% of their employed players went un-drafted.

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