"His whole attitude has really turned around," Richt said. "I'm proud of that, and it's showing up on the field, too. Really, just a total attitude change for the better."
"Coming from the head coach, I have to say that's accurate," Ellerbe said. "He's on the outside looking in so I guess he has seen a change. I feel like I grew up a lot."
Ellerbe, a native of Hamlet, N.C., spent the first three years of college leaving himself plenty of room for improvement. He was dubbed "The Phenom" shortly after his arrival in 2004 for his coveted blend of speed, size and athleticism, but his attitude wasn't near that level.
The turnaround started in June, when Ellerbe, then below the legal drinking age, was arrested on charges of stealing a teammate's car, DUI and giving false information to police after wrecking that car. He was suspended for the first three games of the 2006 season and never gained any traction on the depth chart after that.
He finished the season with seven tackles, giving "The Phenom" 22 in the 19 games he played as a freshman and a sophomore.
"For most people (maturing) is a gradual process but because of the incident, it forced me to speed my growth up and buy into what the coaches were saying," Ellerbe said.
He remains on probation for the incident but is out of Richt's doghouse at least.
"You hate to brag on a guy because … some guys don't handle praise real good, but he's done very well on and off the field, extremely well," Richt said. "We always hold our breath a little bit, but it sure looks like he learned a good lesson."
Ellerbe isn't embarrassed by his modest numbers, he said, but he plans to change them this year. He's starting this spring at weak side linebacker, and Richt said last week he doesn't expect anything to change that this fall.
"I feel like I'm right on schedule," Ellerbe said. "I'm just ready to live up to everybody's expectations."
Brandon Miller, who will line up next to Ellerbe at middle linebacker, thinks he will.
"I believe this is going to be his breakout year," Miller said. "I think he's going to go out there and blast everybody."
Ellerbe and Miller will be joined by either Darius Dewberry or Akeem Dent in the starting lineup next fall, and that trio will be charged with taking up the slack left by the graduation of Tony Taylor, Jarvis Jackson and Danny Verdun Wheeler.
"We want our own identity," Ellerbe said. "The guys in the past, they played well, but we just want to make our own name and ball out."
Their name will be made on "speed, athleticism and aggression," Ellerbe said. Asked if he thought this year's linebackers are faster as a group than Taylor, Jackson and Verdun Wheeler, Ellerbe said, "I know."
They'll be more aggressive, too, he said.
Ellerbe isn't worried that Richt's praise or even his own boasting will jinx his fourth year in the program (including a redshirt season in 2004). If externally he's got a new approach, internally he still has all the confidence of the immature freshman who was dubbed "Phenom."
"It's still ‘Phenom,'" he said of his nickname. "I don't expect that to change, I'd really be in a slump."