By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After Virginia’s Oct. 10 football game at Pittsburgh, assistant head coach Chris Beatty sought out Jordan Ellis at Heinz Field and apologized to the redshirt freshman tailback.
Beatty, who oversees the Cavaliers’ running backs, had planned to use Ellis against Pitt. But UVA fell behind 17-3 in the first quarter, and Beatty ended up scrapping his regular rotation.
“Jordan never complained or anything like that,” Beatty recalled Monday in his McCue Center office. “It was like, `OK, Coach, I’ll come back and work harder next week.’ ”
Ellis, a resident of Suwanee, Ga., about 35 miles northeast of Atlanta, saw his patience rewarded Saturday at Scott Stadium. The last three plays of the third overtime were runs by Ellis, and his final carry produced a 3-yard touchdown that gave Virginia a 44-38 win over ACC foe Syracuse.
“Jordan, he’s a guy that’s just been waiting for his opportunity, and I’m so happy for him,” quarterback Matt Johns told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
Before the game went into overtime, the 5-11 Ellis, who weighs around 210 pounds, had carried three times for 9 yards. He might well have finished with those totals, but Albert Reid was injured during the second OT.
And so in the third overtime, when offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild called for a package that included two tight ends and two running backs (one tailback and one fullback), Beatty inserted Ellis.
“Albert’s 1 and he’s 1-A when we go to 22 personnel,” Beatty said. “Jordan had played earlier in the game, and I didn’t hesitate [to use him again]. That’s his style of run.”
Ellis said he was not surprised to be used at such a pivotal juncture.
“Coach Beatty just tells us all to be ready when our number’s called,” Ellis said Monday. “Make the most of your opportunity. You might have limited opportunities, but you’ve just got to make the most of them.”
No. 10 was determined to do so Saturday. When Ellis entered the game, Johns said, “you could just see it in his eyes, he was going to score, and our offensive line gave him a good push.”
On second-and-2 from the 5, Ellis gained 3 yards. On first-and-goal, another Ellis run lost a yard. On second-and-goal from the 3, however, he was not to be denied.
“It was great to see Jordan have some success,” head coach Mike London said Monday, “and then the team have success when that happens.”
Ellis is one of four tailbacks to play for the Wahoos this season, along with juniors Reid and Taquan Mizzell (who’s known as Smoke) and redshirt sophomore Daniel Hamm. Mizzell has carried 66 times (for 254 yards), Reid 37 times (for 163 yards), Hamm 28 times (for 99 yards), and Ellis 17 times (for 62 yards).
Trying to find playing time for four tailbacks, Beatty said, is “not easy, but it’s a better problem than not having anybody at that position. It’s like I tell those guys: `You earn what you get. If you have a good week of practice, you’ll play more, and we’ll find ways to get you on the field.’
“I think the thing that makes it a little bit easier is the fact that Smoke and Daniel can do so much as receivers. It’d be a lot tougher if they all were just the same kind of back. But because they’ve got different skill sets, it gives you a chance to play them all in different packages.”
Mizzell has a team-high 35 receptions for 409 yards and three touchdowns, and Hamm has six catches for 54 yards.
Ellis and the 5-9, 210-pound Reid are the Cavaliers’ power backs. On the final play Saturday, Syracuse’s Chauncey Scissum, a 6-2, 207-pound safety, met Ellis around the 2-yard line, only to be pushed back into the end zone.
“Jordan Ellis, he’s a bus,” Mizzell said.
Ellis said: “I can run outside, but my strength is more downhill, inside runs.”
In the stands Saturday at Scott Stadium was Ellis’ mother, and that made the moment even more special for him. “I was pretty excited to do it in front of her,” Ellis said.
Joeann Ellis has become accustomed to seeing her son in the end zone with the football. As a senior at Peachtree Ridge High in 2013, he scored 31 touchdowns — 30 rushing and one receiving — in 12 games.
“Never been in a three-overtime game, though,” Ellis said, smiling.
For most of his final two high school seasons, Ellis was Peachtree Ridge’s featured back, so taking on a minor role at Virginia has been adjustment for him. Still, he’s been able to maintain perspective.
“I’m only a freshman, so I’m just trying to get as much experience as I can,” said Ellis, who lives with teammate Chris Peace, a reserve defensive end.
Beatty, who coached the wide receivers at Wisconsin in 2013 and ’14, joined London’s staff in January and began working with the Cavaliers’ running backs, including Ellis.
“Jordan is one of those guys who’s real quiet, unassuming,” Beatty said. “He cares about what he’s doing. He takes pride in his game.
“I thought in the spring he was a little overweight. He came back and lost 10 pounds in the offseason, went from 218 to 208, and got to a point where I was telling him not to lose any more weight, because it would change his running style.”
Ellis has appeared in four games for Virginia (2-4 overall, 1-1 ACC), which meets Coastal Division rival North Carolina (5-1, 2-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Chapel Hill. He’s carried at least once in three of those games and, with two rushing touchdowns, is tied with Mizzell for the team lead.
On his first college carry, Sept. 19 against William & Mary, Ellis broke several tackles en route to a 39-yard touchdown.
“I think he’s just scratching the surface,” Beatty said. “He’s got to continue to improve, but there’s a lot of things he does really well. To me, again, I think it’s 1 and 1a. Albert’s played more at this level, so that’s kind of got him a little bit ahead, but their styles are similar.”
Mizzell has emerged as the Cavaliers’ No. 1 tailback, Beatty said, “but because he does so many things, it gives you a chance to mix and match and play [other] people. I think that’s good for everybody, because you don’t wear one person out. And I don’t necessarily think Smoke is a 25-carry-a-game guy.”
UVa fans can expect to see more of Ellis this season.
“The whole deal is to try to get him in a series in the first half and see how he runs,” Beatty said, “and then go from there every game.”
“They’re all good kids,” Beatty said. “I’ve coached a lot of guys, and this room is about as good as I’ve seen. These guys, I think they’ve got no ego. They just want the team to do well, and that’s rare. Most people have an ego.”
Mizzell and Hamm lavished praise on Ellis after the game Saturday night, as did senior wide receiver Canaan Severin. Ellis downplayed his accomplishment during an interview Monday, but he brightened when asked about the victory, Virginia’s first over an FBS opponent this season.
“We were behind most of the game, pretty much the whole fourth quarter, and we had to come back and fight our way to a win,” Ellis said. “Hopefully this can create some momentum for the rest of the season.”