Inside or out, Ellis is clearly one of the most productive linebackers on the Tide squad. But the former strong safety readily admits he feels more comfortable on the outside. "It's different, but it's also a position that I've been wanting to play," Ellis said. "I didn't like the ‘Mike' position as much. I played it, because they needed me there. And I didn't complain about it. I was happy to be out there. Last year I just wanted to play. I wanted to establish myself as a linebacker. But moving back outside was something that I had been wanting to do."
In a decision questioned by many, last year's coaching staff chose to ‘fix' what wasn't broken, moving Saleem Rasheed from the middle linebacker spot where he had performed well enough as a true freshman to earn all-star recognition. In the process Ellis was flip-flopped to the starting position on the inside where he performed solidly for the Tide. Besides his No. 2 team ranking for tackles, the Tennessee native had nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage for a total of 42 yards in losses; two and a half sacks; 14 quarterback hurries; two forced fumbles; one fumble recovery; two passes deflected and two blocked kicks while holding down the starting job for all 11 games.
But after watching just a few days of spring practice, Tide Defensive Coordinator Carl Torbush was quick to switch both Ellis and Rasheed to their more natural positions. "(The coaches) were trying to fit me into the defensive scheme," Ellis explained. "To find the position where I could be most effective and make the most plays. I think it showed the coaches have confidence in me. They saw that I can play a number of positions."
As the starter at Strongside Linebacker, Ellis will most often line up over the opposing team's tight end. But with his high school background as a strong safety, he has confidence in his coverage skills. "Pass defense won't be a problem for me," Ellis explained. "Just learning the techniques and the new defensive schemes is my biggest job. But relearning the position is something I take as a challenge."
Of course Ellis probably hasn't played his last down on the inside, as Coach Torbush has plans to work him some at both defensive slots. "I'll keep a hand in at both positions," Ellis said. "I've got to know what everybody is doing. And if something happens to Saleem, then I may be called on to move inside and somebody will step up for me. I think I can play outside or in the middle. Last season took away that question. Being able to play several positions helps. Right now we're obviously trying to create depth."
Though he normally deferred to last year's seniors, Ellis also played a leadership role in 2000. And as one of the most respected members of the current squad, the senior-to-be understands the job ahead. "This is my last year, and I'm taking that role very seriously," Ellis stated. "I'm planning to be a leader on the field and keep the guys going--when times get rough keep them up. In a way it really hasn't changed from last year, but now it's more expected. Kenny Smith, Tony Dixon and Marcus Spencer are gone now, and I've got to step up. Now it's my time to be a leader."
"You try not to think about it too much," Ellis continued. "But I've had time to reflect on the fact that it's my last season. I've still got a long way to go, but I feel like I've come a long way from where I started--arriving on campus as a strong safety and now handling linebacker."
As Ellis points out, he made his name in high school as a defensive back. But hours of work in the weight room (Ellis was a lifting enthusiast even before the new conditioning program was put in place last January) have produced a legitimate linebacker's physique. "When I look in the mirror now, I see a linebacker looking back at me," Ellis said. "And a lot of other people have told me that. At times early in my career I wasn't really sure of my position, but now I see a (strongside) linebacker looking back at me."
With Rasheed in the middle, Brooks Daniels at Rover and Ellis on the other side, Alabama looks to have a very good group of starting linebackers. Of course having one of the best position coaches in the country will also be a major plus. "I really like Coach Torbush," Ellis said. "You can tell he's a great linebacker coach. Some of his drills I had never seen before, but I liked them. I'm really looking forward to working with him more."
"He's really down-to-earth, and he's understanding," Ellis continued. "But he'll get on you in a minute. But that's good. It's what he calls ‘tough love.' He'll get on us, but when it's all over with he's going to love us."
And for Ellis, who suffered as much as anyone during last season's losing campaign, the changeover in coaching staffs has been a breath of fresh air. "There's definitely a new attitude," Ellis explained. "There's a lot of encouragement from the players and the coaches--and that's a lot different. I think the missing ingredient from last year will come through Coach Franchione and his staff. They kept us together as a team throughout spring. And they'll continue through to fall.
"During spring I wanted to reestablish myself as a starting linebacker. My goal always is to be the best--not just to be out there. I want to go into this season with a confident attitude. When I step across that side line, I want to be the best player on the field."