“But we have tried to tell Brooks how good we think he can be and I’m not sure he understands.”
Smith and Vernon Hargreaves, the UA’s new linebackers coach, tried to convey that message in a spring exit meeting just before final exams. There are few holes in his game, Smith said.
Some may fret that the Hogs lost weakside linebacker Martrell Spaight, but Smith sees more talent in Ellis and no drop as they slide the junior from Fayetteville over from middle linebacker. Smith talks about his description of his defense as the Smart Swarm. Ellis is just that.
“Vernon and I both told him that we’d been around some pretty good linebackers and we’ve never seen anyone better,” Smith said. “We just love the guy.
“We think he’s perfect for our weakside linebacker spot. That’s one of the highlights of the spring, seeing Brooks play that position and see how he can make plays. He’s just really good. It’s an important spot in our defense and he can really play there.”
Ellis, 6-2, 237-pounder, nods his head about the conversation and the high praise from his coaches. They’ve loved Ellis ever since he became a starter midway through his true freshman season. He has 105 tackles and 15 career starts.
“Yes, they told me those things,” Ellis said. “I got excited. Those kind of compliments make me want to work even harder. I guess I need to work on my confidence a little, too.”
There were scrimmage situations that proved to Smith that Ellis can be do the same things for the Hogs that Martrell Spaight did last year on the way to first team All-SEC honors at weakside linebacker.
“There was a play early this spring when Sebastian Tretola was pulling and Brooks ducked inside of him and made a tackle for a loss,” Smith said. “It was pure instinct. He’s got the ability to turn and run that make him really good in coverages.”
Ellis shared the team lead with two interceptions, but could have had more. He had his hand on four against Texas Tech, but didn’t tuck away any of them. Interestingly, that was a game in which he spent mostly playing weakside linebacker.
“We had some pressure situations where we wanted Martrell at mike,” Smith said. “And we liked Brooks against the spread in coverage situations. I think he’ll catch those balls going forward. If he had caught all of those against Tech, he might have scored a few touchdowns and been player of the week.”
Ellis knows he dropped more than he caught last year. He was catching some flak from quarterback Brandon Allen about the drops against Tech during a photo shoot for the cover of Hawgs Illustrated. But when a football was tossed their way, Ellis grabbed a low throw from a UA media relations specialist just inches from the carpet.
“Caught that one,” Ellis said, smiling. “I will remind you guys that I did tie for the team lead last year.”
Yes, but that was just two. He hopes his total is a little higher this year, but there were no chances to practice that craft against Allen this spring.
“Brandon was pretty good,” Ellis said. “Brandon didn’t throw any interceptions this spring. I never touched a single pass he threw. I did against some of the other quarterbacks, but not any of his. None.”
Ellis is smart enough to know that’s a good thing. The defense would have liked to have had some turnovers this spring, but the first team offense didn’t provide any opportunities. It’s not like the defense doesn’t work on turnovers. They do drills to strip the quarterback every day. It’s all a calculated part of Smith’s plan to set up the defense for a shutout. The defense was not surprised by the shutouts against LSU and Ole Miss in November and disappointed they didn’t get another in the Texas Bowl, a 31-7 victory over Texas.
“We talk about what it takes to get a shutout every single day,” Ellis said. “Coach Smith tells us the three things that have to happen to get a shutout. You stop the run, limit the big play and get turnovers. He’s got the numbers on the odds of getting a victory when you achieve certain statistics. For example, you hold the offense to under three yards per play, the odds are 5 to 2 that you will get the victory.”
Smith points to the numbers rolled up by last year’s defense with pride.
“He tells us what it takes to be the best defense in the country,” Ellis said. “That’s what he expects, the best. That’s him. He’s intense, but he’s a good guy. He’s going to work us to get the best out of us and we give him everything we have to try to make him happy.
“There’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t bring up the things that we’ve done so far, like lead the country in fourth-down defense. He talks a lot about going to Atlanta (for the SEC championship game). It’s in every single meeting. That’s our goal.”
Ellis brought up the potential for an Atlanta trip in the media room after the spring game. There had not been any talk about an SEC championship in several years at Arkansas. It wasn’t too long ago that the Hogs were trying to end a double digit SEC losing streak.
It shouldn’t surprise that Ellis is focused on leading the Razorbacks to a league championship. It’s in his blood. Grandfather David Lashley was an offensive linemen for the 1954 Razorbacks, the famed 25 Little Pigs and Southwest Conference champs.
Bret Bielema asked players to write something about their legacy on a T-shirt that would be worn under their shoulder pads before the Auburn game two years ago.
“I wrote my grandfather’s initials,” Ellis said. “His legacy as a Razorback is huge to me. It’s my motivation, one of the reasons I’m here. I want to make my family proud and represent his name.”
Ellis has not seen the old game tapes of his grandfather, but had no trouble coming up with a description of his style.
“Tough,” Ellis said. “He was tough all of his life. He wasn’t the biggest. Linemen were not so big in those days. But he was tough and quick.”
Ellis is well aware of his father’s role to win a league championship home. What would it be like to repeat that feat?
“Incredible,” Ellis said. “I think it would be crazy and I think about that.”
Ellis doesn’t just throw out crazy ideas. He puts his words together carefully, much as you’d suspect from a pre-med major. Dr. Mark Powell, one of the team’s orthopedic surgeons, has known Ellis and his family for years. He has been mentoring Ellis on his potential path in medicine.
“We’ve visited several times,” Powell said. “I grew up around his mother and knew his grandfather. His mother asked me to talk to Brooks and when I did I was impressed by his questions. We talked for two hours.”
Ellis acknowledges putting in preparation for the interview. He said Powell followed up with invitations to observe in the operating room.
“Dr. Powell gave me great answers to my questions,” Ellis said. “I wrote it all down. He let me watch two surgeries, an ACL and meniscus scope.”
It’s too early to know exactly, but Ellis thinks he’d like to try sports medicine.
“I think helping in sports would be fun,” Ellis said. “I’ve had knee problems and I think it would be cool to give something back to an athlete.”
First, Ellis would like a shot at the NFL.
“Med school can wait,” Ellis said. “My first choice would be to play in the NFL.”
But the class schedule sets up both. Ellis loads up with the tough ones in the spring and summer, backing off a bit in the fall when football is first priority. His tough classes this spring were genetics, cell biology and exercise physiology.
All were handled with ease. The comprehension is there. Now if Brooks Ellis can just figure out how good he is at playing linebacker.