When Collin Ellis first arrived at Camp Kenosha last year as a true freshman, the experience was a bit overwhelming.
“The first year you don’t really know what’s going on, there’s a lot of football terminology thrown at you, it’s a lot harder to stay awake in meetings,” he said.
This year, as a redshirt freshman, Ellis figures to play a much bigger role in Northwestern’s defense and his time at Kenosha has been much different, as well.
“This year’s a lot (more fun) for me,” he said. “Now, when you’re in the mix you know the terminology, you can come out here and enjoy the time off and enjoy Kenosha.”
While Ellis has enjoyed his down time, he is right in the middle of the Wildcats’ outside linebacker battle, the most intense position battle on the team.
“I’m getting more reps, a lot more reps than I was last year, so it’s physically more demanding, but I feel like mentally it’s a little bit more at ease,” he said.
Linebacker is the biggest question mark on a unit that was largely inconsistent last season. The defense gave up 70 points to Wisconsin to end last year, but it was outstanding against Iowa, especially in the fourth quarter.
With a number of returning starters and experience all across the defense, the unit should be much improved from last year. Ellis is utilizing the experienced players to help him work on his game.
“One (guy) who’s helped me a lot is Brian Peters,” he said. “I went in over the summer a lot with Brian Peters trying to figure out what the safety is doing so I would know what to do and being able to play off of him and know what I need to give help and when not to give help.
“Bryce (McNaul) has helped me out a lot, learning the plays, learning what WILL is doing so I can know exactly what I’m doing over at SAM.”
Ellis, along with fellow redshirt freshman Chi Chi Ariguzo, is competing against once of those experienced players, senior Ben Johnson, and he’s excited just to be given the chance to compete.
“It’s fun, and it’s also an honor to be in the mix in the first place because we’ve got guys like Ben Johnson who are fifth-year seniors who can absolutely fly and have a lot of experience,” he said. “So it’s definitely an honor to be in the mix.”
Ellis first started to move up the depth chart after last season and got a lot of reps in spring ball because Johnson was injured. He took advantage of that opportunity and had an impressive spring, which earned him a chance to battle for the starting job this fall.
“Spring is the first time you really get a shot. Other than bowl practice that’s the first time you really get going,” he said. “And in the spring we had guys down so that was out time to get in there and learn. Ben was down so that was Chi Chi and I’s turn to get in there and learn everything. The spring was the first time I really started to grasp concepts and everything.
“The offseason went real well. I got in good shape, gained a lot of wait, and now I’ve picked up on the playbook. I’m still trying to learn everything, get everything smoothed out, but the offseason was really beneficial for me.”
Despite the intense competition, Ellis, Johnson and Ariguzo are friends off the field and they’ve maintained strong chemistry with the rest of the unit.
“These are all my friends,” Ellis said. “On weekends these are the guys I hang out with whenever I come home. You know, these are the guys I’ve been chilling with and stuff.
“In the down time, like I said, we’re all buddies, so we’re always goofing off, chilling with each other; we’ve got our own linebacker clique going. During the season we’re doing things like we’re going to eat as a linebacker corps together, like on Thursdays before the game, and stuff like that. Then we hang out with each other on the weekends and during school and I have classes with a couple of the guys, depending on what quarter it was, so all that stuff just leads to great chemistry on the field, and you can definitely tell it’s been paying off.”
Coach Pat Fitzgerald is impressed with the results, as well.
“I like the way Collin is playing; I like the way that whole linebacking corps is playing,” he said. “We’ve got pretty good depth there, I like it. I like the way the guys are working. They’re doing it the right way. They’re being great teammates, working hard together, and trying to make each other better.”
While the competition and chemistry seem to be paying off on the practice field, the Wildcats hope that translates to their first game Saturday, Sept. 3, against Boston College. Fitzgerald expects the competition to continue up until game day.