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Ellis readies for his debut as starting QB

The best Dan Ellis story turns out not to be true, after all. He didn't request the phonebook-sized Virginia playbook while still in high school and memorize it before he arrived in Charlottesville, which didn't prompt head coach George Welsh, not one given to hyperbole, to call him "the smartest player I've ever seen."

It's not a matter of Ellis not wanting to. He did, in fact, ask for the playbook; pesky NCAA rules wouldn't let him. But then, Ellis always seems to be getting a little ahead of himself.

Take his first game, for instance. Starter Aaron Brooks went down with an ankle injury halfway through a 47-21 beating from Florida State Oct. 25, 1997, bringing in Ellis just seven games removed from Mom making him lunch. Ellis performed capably, completing eight of 15 passes for 122 yards, scoring one touchdown and throwing for another, all while being sacked six times by the ferocious Seminole defense.

"The year before I was in high school, watching college football on TV," Ellis said. "Now, here I am, playing against Florida State before a national audience. It was kind of like, 'Holy cow, here I am, playing college football!' It surprised me I did as well as I did."

Head coach George Welsh summed up everyone's thoughts on Ellis at the following Monday press conference with a typical understatement: "I liked what I saw in him." High praise for a man who took three years to call three-time All-America safety Anthony Poindexter "awesome."

Everyone's interest in Ellis, the third-year signal caller projected to start for the Cavaliers in 1999, has been increasing over the past two years. The gutsy Florida State performance showed his capacity for the big time, but could he succeed the mercurial Brooks, a prolific passer who seemed always one play away from greatness?

While the playbook story isn't quite accurate, it is a pretty good indication of Ellis' character. In the intangibles, Ellis is fine. He is by all accounts a hard-working, intelligent player who sees the field and makes decisions exceptionally well. He is also tough, and will, as his high school coach once said, "play quarterback like a linebacker."

But when it comes down to the measurable categories, the jury's still out. His arm-strength, according to his coach, is "above-average." His speed, while not slow by any estimate, is nowhere near that of the wily Brooks.

The Ellis file is short: high school All-American out of Philadelphia, able performances in brief minutes, impressive 15-for-18, 145-yard spring game, 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. He just grew a goatee, too.

He simply hasn't played enough to gather many big statistics, or good stories for that matter.

"One time in a high school district title game I played with only one ear pad," Ellis offered helpfully. "It fell out, and I just played without it for the rest of the game."

"You sound like a martyr," offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill said, obviously unimpressed.

What has impressed Tranquill, the recently returned architect of the high-flying Moore-to-Moore Virginia offenses of the late 1980s and early '90s, about Ellis is his ability to pick things up quickly and his poise.

But Tranquill cautioned there is never a substitute for experience. Ellis, at least, thinks like a veteran.

"He has a good understanding," Tranquill said. "He hasn't had much playing time, so it's good that he does pick things up quickly, because he's going to see some things he hasn't seen yet."

The Virginia coaching staff has, however, been grooming Ellis for this role since his recruitment. He largely fended off a surprising challenge by redshirt third-year David Rivers for the starting job with an impressive spring. He began working extensively with his receiver corps a few weeks ago, and has mined Tranquill's wealth of football knowledge since his hiring last winter. He essentially has been preparing for this fall since he signed with Virginia.

"Even last year, with Coach Woods, I was always saying, 'Next year, what are we going to do differently?'" Ellis said. "Just because you're not No. 1 doesn't mean you can't learn."

The offense around Ellis offers both distinct advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, he has one of the most talented backfields in the nation, with All-ACC selections Thomas Jones and Antwoine Womack as well as his ex-high school teammate, redshirt first-year Arlen Harris. Even if Womack is removed from the team for his role in an on-Grounds fight last spring, fullback duo Anthony Southern and Tyree Foreman both have proven themselves as receivers.

He has a veteran offensive line, with two potential stars in center John St. Clair and tackle Noel LaMontagne and a pair of talented tight ends in All-ACC Casey Crawford and the underrated Billy Baber.

But the wide receiver corps is, for the second consecutive year, a gigantic question mark. There is no definitive No. 1 wide receiver, no gamebreaker who Ellis can rely upon. Six-foot-4 Kevin Coffey is the most likely candidate, as he averaged 25 yards-per-catch in 1998. But Coffey only caught 23 passes and seems a step too slow to emerge from his possession-receiver mode. He did, however, catch six passes for 102 yards in the annual spring game. Speedy but inconsistent Ahmad Hawkins and redshirt first-year James Johnson offer intriguing alternatives.

Ellis' world changes Sept. 4, when the college football world-and a top-25 North Carolina squad-meets Ellis for the first time as a starting quarterback, not just a backup mopping up after Brooks. The next week, it's down to Death Valley. Two weeks after, it'll be a trip to Provo for another top-25 opponent, Brigham Young.

"I'm really excited about it; it's going to be a great test, because we don't play a Richmond or I-AA team to start off; we don't have a warm up game," Ellis said. "We've got to be ready to go, firing on all cylinders."

But breaking in a new quarterback is always a risky proposition, and the results of a difficult start can be devastating. The Virginia defense saw to that last year, when their opening-game pummeling of rookie starter Ben Leard sent the Auburn offense tumbling; Leard lasted just three games before being replaced by Gabe Gross.

"We're just going to have to wait and see on this scenario," Tranquill said. "We hope we can have him prepared well enough, and see enough in practice that when he goes into that first game hopefully things will fall into place. We'll see how he responds."

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