Aug. 31, 2016

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Outside the University of Virginia football program, running back Jordan Ellis’ profile is not especially high. Inside the McCue Center, Ellis has special status.

“Jordan is probably the hardest-working dude on the team,” linebacker Micah Kiser, one of the Cavaliers’ captains, said Monday. “All summer, he was [completing] workouts in the morning, catching balls in the afternoon, running in the afternoon.”

As has been well-chronicled, Bronco Mendenhall, after taking over as Virginia’s head coach in December, told his players they would have to earn their jersey numbers. That process began in January, when director of football performance Frank Wintrich launched his offseason conditioning program, and ended, for 61 players, last week.

In a much-anticipated ceremony Saturday night in the home locker room at Scott Stadium, numbers were chosen.

“That was probably one of the most special moments I’ve had at UVA,” said center Jackson Matteo, a graduate student who’s one of the team captains.

Mendenhall said: “It was an amazing night, I would say one of the most memorable of my coaching career to this point — really, really special.”

The team is divided into groups called task units. Overseeing them are six task unit leaders and six assistant task unit leaders, all players. They determined the order in which jersey numbers would be selected.

“I wasn’t the one selecting, nor were any of the coaches,” Mendenhall said. “Really, this was peer-driven. I thought that would have a lot more impact on the players knowing when they were selected by their peers to choose a number.”

The first pick? That went to Ellis, a soft-spoken redshirt sophomore from Suwanee, Ga., who has yet to start a game in college.

“It just means a lot to me to think my peers see me as one of the hardest workers on the team,” Ellis said.

The choice might have surprised some UVA fans, but not Ellis’ teammates or coaches. Asked how Ellis earned the first pick, Matteo answered quickly.

“Very simple,” Matteo said. “He’s outworked everyone in his way.”

When Wintrich sat down in the McCue Center with the leaders of the task units, he recalled Tuesday, “I said, `All right, who’s No. 1?’ And there were 12 guys, and they all said, `Jordan Ellis.’ Unanimously. There was no hesitation on any of their parts.”

The 5-11, 220-pound Ellis wore jersey No. 10 in his first two seasons at Virginia. At Peachtree Ridge High School, however, he had worn No. 1, and that was his preference heading into the selection ceremony.

But he learned that Mendenhall did not want two players sharing the same number — that’s allowed if one is on offense and the other on defense — and Ellis knew that senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins, who wore No. 93 last year, wanted No. 1, too. Wilkins had the second pick Saturday night.

“So I just said, `He can have it,’ ” Ellis recalled Tuesday.

Small wonder Ellis is universally respected in the program.

“You don’t hear anything negative come out of Jordan’s mouth,” senior running back Taquan Mizzell said. “He might not talk a lot, but whatever it is, he’s going to do it, and he’s going to get it done.”

In terms of work ethic, selflessness and commitment to the team, Ellis “is the epitome of a UVA football player under this regime,” Mendenhall said Tuesday night on his radio show.

“Doesn’t say much, does he?” Matteo said, smiling. “Probably the quietest guy you’ll ever meet, but, man, he works hard, and he’s not afraid to get after it in the weight room.

“Some guys can be a weight-room freak, and it doesn’t translate, and vice versa. You can be a freak on the football field, and sometimes it doesn’t translate to the weight room. It all translates for him. He’s solid.”

Wintrich said: “I think consistency is the name of the game with Jordan. He performs and trains at a high level day in, day out. And there’s never a dropoff.”

An American Studies major, Ellis credits his work ethic to his mother, Joeann Ellis, a physical therapist in the Atlanta area.

“She’s a hard-working lady,” Ellis said. “She sometimes works seven days a week.”

That workload does not keep Joeann from sending her son an encouraging text message every morning.

“Those days where I don’t feel like doing anything, I look at that text and it gets me going,” Ellis said. “Most days I wake up to it, and the days I don’t feel like [training], I think, `Who am I doing this for?’ ”

After redshirting in 2014, Ellis appeared in nine games last season as the Wahoos’ No. 4 tailback, behind Mizzell, Albert Reid and Daniel Hamm. Ellis carried 24 times for 74 yards and two touchdowns.

His most memorable moment came Oct. 17 against Syracuse at Scott Stadium. The final three plays that night were Ellis runs, the last of which, in the third overtime, produced the game-winning touchdown.

“Last year was up and down,” Ellis said. “Some games I would play. Some games I wouldn’t. I know I have to wait my time and just see where things go from there.”

In the spread offense the Cavaliers’ new coaching staff has installed, running backs are labeled as “small backs” or “big backs.” Ellis can be used in either role.

“That’s one thing [running backs coach Mark] Atuaia likes about me: He can stick me in in both positions,” Ellis said.

As a high school senior, Ellis scored 30 touchdowns and was named first-team all-state. It’s been trying at times, Ellis acknowledged, to have to wait his turn at a position where the `Hoos are deep, talented and experienced. (Mizzell and Reid are seniors, and Hamm is a junior). But he draws inspiration from Mizzell, who as a freshman and sophomore often played behind Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd.

“Smoke was in the same situation as me,” Ellis said. “His first two years he didn’t really get that much playing time. He came in sometimes, but he just stayed patient, and now it’s his time. I kind of learned from him how to stay patient and learn as much as you can, so when it’s your time you can make the most of it.”

Ellis’ role is expected to grow in the Cavaliers’ first season under Mendenhall. That starts Saturday with a 3:30 p.m. game against Richmond at Scott Stadium. After training for eight months in Wintrich’s program, Ellis is in superb condition.

“Not only am I in the best shape of my life, I feel like the team is, too,” he said, “and I feel like it’s going to pay off.”

He takes pride in what he’s accomplished under the new staff, which has demanded much of the players.

“The first day Coach Mendenhall came here,” Ellis recalled, “he said, `You’re going to have to earn your number. Nobody’s going to be given their number from last year. You’re going to have to earn it if you want it back again.’ So it’s pretty satisfying to earn it and not have it be given to us. That’s a very good feeling.”

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