Collin Ellis is donning a few roles for the first time. A season after earning a starting job, the senior is now a team captain and is often referred to as the de-facto leader of Northwestern’s defense. And after filling a hole at strong side linebacker, Ellis now patrols the middle of the field at the MIKE position.
You would think he’s been doing this for years. Through two games, Ellis has a team-high 21 tackles, half a sack, an interception, two quarterback hits and a pass deflection.
The numbers are deceiving, he says.
“My eyes were terrible in the first game. Absolutely horrendous. I had a bunch of tackles, but I played very average and I was disappointed leaving that game,” Ellis tells PurpleWildcats. “This last game, I was really disappointed in my backside effort. That’s not how I usually play. I’m normally playing my tail off.”
It’s hard to imagine what a satisfied Ellis looks like. Through two games, the Louisiana native has swiftly risen from the risk-reward playmaker he was in 2013 to become one of Northwestern’s most consistent and mature defenders. Ellis has been the team’s best tackler, best blitzer, and apart from Ibraheim Campbell, the unit’s most polished product.
But the transition from strong side to middle linebacker isn’t complete, Ellis admits. He’s critical of his over-pursuits still, and says that his immediate recognition of passing plays in run formations and on fakes isn’t where he wants it to be. Stabilizing both will be vital for upcoming opponents: Penn State tight end Jesse James has two touchdowns through three games, and Christian Hackenberg excels in play action. Wisconsin’s Sam Arneson is second among Badgers in receiving yardage.
“I’m really trying to embrace the MIKE linebacker focus on stopping the run. But so many passes have come over the middle so far. I have to learn to discern between pass and run, instead of just triggering and trying to make a sack,” Ellis says. “This week, I’m really focusing on my eyes to read runs and passes better.”
Ellis’ focus on his eyes is justified by his position shift. As a strong side backer, Ellis was responsible for watching the third wide receiver, tight end, tackle, quarterback and running back pre-snap in an opposing offense. Now in the middle, he looks over at just the guards, center and running back.
Ellis compares the middle linebacker position to a rogue three-technique defensive tackle. He’s picked up the position remarkably quickly, regardless of what he’s calling it, and his progression to a talent worthy of league-wide recognition is one of Northwestern’s only bright spots thus far. NU will need all that they can get from him going forward, and Ellis’ dedication to improving his pass defense is welcomed by a team that’s struggled to contain opposing quarterbacks.
Pat Fitzgerald jokes that Ellis’ main contribution this week would be giving the Wildcats an elusive first-quarter touchdown, but praises his captain’s consistency and positivity, and adds that he hopes all three of his sons grow up to be like him. But Ellis himself isn’t offering quite as positive of a review.
“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not on the field,” he says.
Expectations are fluid, but the hype is palpable. Northwestern’s most humble player is also one of its most versatile, and if Ellis continues to settle in to the position, a disoriented defense will gain a needed crutch.