NCAA FB

Deep-thinking Ellis ready to lead for No. 18 Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Brooks Ellis is no doubt uncomfortable with the description of outlier.

But an outlier is exactly what the Arkansas captain is in today's bravado-driven world of college football.

What makes Ellis stand out from the rest of his teammates isn't his play on the field, though the junior is one of the top returning linebackers in the Southeastern Conference.

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It's that this pre-med student is so late in believing in his potential on the football field, and he doesn't shy away from discussing his own doubts - a surprising bit of humility in a game not known for that trait. To watch Ellis play his first two seasons with the No. 18 Razorbacks, who open their season on Saturday at home against UTEP, you'd never know he questioned whether he was talented enough to play in the SEC while being recruited out of nearby Fayetteville High School.

As one scholarship offer after another came in, from schools such as Mississippi, Vanderbilt, North Carolina and Illinois, Ellis said he ''really didn't'' believe he could play at that level - even after being named Arkansas' high school defensive player of the year in each of his last two seasons.

The 6-foot-2, 242-pound Ellis wasted little time in making believers out of his coaches after he arrived two seasons ago, assuming the role of starting middle linebacker late in his freshman season and finishing with double-digit tackles in two of his four starts. He followed that with 72 tackles while starting all 11 games he played in last season, not bad for a kid who had always thought medical school was in his post-collegiate future, not the NFL.

''Medical school is what I wanted to do, because I wasn't really sure where this football thing was taking me,'' Ellis said. ''Once I was here, I didn't think I was going to start as a freshman, wasn't going to have the success I've had or all the hype I've had so far.''

The Razorbacks finished last season 10th in the country in total defense, eventually allowing only 59 yards of total offense in a bowl win over Texas. However, coach Bret Bielema knew they were facing a void entering this season with the graduation of linebacker Martrell Spaight, who led the SEC in tackles with 128 last season.

Bielema picked up on the doubts during Ellis' freshman season. In an attempt to bolster the confidence of the soft-spoken standout, Bielema called over defensive coordinator Robb Smith during practices before the bowl game.

Bielema gave a message for Smith to deliver to Ellis.

''As soon as Spaight graduates, you're going to (weakside linebacker), and you're going to lead the SEC in tackles the next two years,'' Bielema said.

Ellis' reaction was one of careful calculation as he took in the news and looked toward the future. It was hardly the unbridled excitement Bielema had hoped for from his defensive play caller, who he said is ''spooky'' good on the field.

''I told him, `You've got to start realizing you've got a bigger deal here now,''' Bielema said. '''You do what you're capable of doing, I know you've got med school, but you've got a chance to do some things (in the NFL).'''

Ellis has indeed moved to that weakside position this season for the Razorbacks, though only time will tell if he lives up to Bielema's prediction.

What's for sure is the confidence his coaches have in him is at an all-time high, and they don't mind reminding their resident deep thinker of that on a regular basis.

''As much as anything, I think it's just us making him understand and letting him know that we've seen some really good players,'' first-year linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves said. ''I've had the chance to coach some really good players, and believe it or not, he could probably stand in there with a couple of those guys.''

The real question, though, is does Ellis finally believe?

''I think I do; I think I'm getting there,'' Ellis said. ''It's a lot better now than it was a year ago. I'm just slowly but surely getting there.''