By: Eric Myers
DeMatha High School football head coach Elijah Brooks described Tino Ellis as driven. Brooks said it’s that competitive drive that’s made Ellis successful in his transition from wide receiver to cornerback at the collegiate level.
“He sets his goals, knows what he wants and he’s not going to stop until he accomplishes those,” Brooks said.
In middle school, one of those goals was to attend DeMatha High School. Brooks recalled Ellis immediately expressing to the coaching staff that DeMatha was his dream school during a camp or information session. Coupled with that competitive drive, it was a different drive that allowed Ellis attend his dream school.
“I think it’s a testament to the sacrifice that him and his family made, traveling close to 90 minutes in traffic to and from school each day,” Brooks said.
That sacrifice paid off for Ellis in the form of a Division I scholarship after being rated as a four-star prospect, the sixth highest rated recruit in the state, and playing in the 2016 Under Armour All-America Game, a showcase of some of the nation’s best prospects.
Ellis, however, accomplished all of that on the offensive side of the ball at wide receiver. During the recruiting process, the 6-foot-1 prospect received interest from schools for not only offense but defense as well, and was viewed as a player that could make the switch to a cornerback. While he played safety periodically in high school for the Stags, Ellis wanted to play receiver in college.
After arriving at the University of Maryland the summer before his freshman year, Ellis started to learn the position in training camp under defensive backs coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim and watch players like senior cornerback Will Likely, a player that Ellis credited as a mentor, which helped him grow to like a position he previously had no desire to play.
Brooks noted that 6-foot-1 wide receivers are everywhere in college football, but defensive backs with that kind of size are more of a premium, making Ellis a fit to make the switch. Although Ellis transitioned from an offensive playmaking position, he still thrives on making plays to create energy on defense.
“Making a spark for the defense, that’s what I like about it,” Ellis said. “With a pass breakup or big tackle or big hit, that’s what I like about playing corner.”
As a freshman, Ellis adjusted to the college game while also learning a position that was foreign to him. In 12 appearances as a freshman, including one start, Ellis totaled nine tackles and three pass breakups despite focusing mostly on learning the technique.
Ellis said the hardest part about learning the position was looking at a defensive playbook instead of just running routes according to the defensive alignment.
Now in his third season at cornerback, Ellis has built upon that technique and has a deeper understanding of the playbook from the other side of the ball, which allows him to be in position to make those momentum-changing plays.
The former receiver also uses his offensive background to cover his counterparts and be in position before the quarterback even throws the ball.
“It definitely gives me insight,” Ellis said. “Sometimes I can tell just by the stem or the release of the receiver, I can tell what route he’s running.”
In four games in the 2018 season, Ellis already has seven pass breakups, surpassing last season’s total of five in 12 games. He’s also reacted well to screens and isn’t afraid to provide support in the run defense and make an important tackle, as he has 11 solo tackles this season.
Brooks attended what was perhaps Ellis’s best game of his career, at least according to Pro Football Focus, who rated him as the best cornerback in the country for his performance against Texas at FedEx Field.
Ellis finished that game with 39 coverage snaps, allowing just five receptions for 13 yards, none of which allowed Texas to gain a first down, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I think from a physical standpoint, he can run with anyone, he’s great at the point of attack and he’s a sure tackler,” Brooks said of his former player. “Once he continues to play more at that position, experience more and continue to learn, I think he’ll be a complete package when he’s ready to come out.”