Tino Ellis came to Maryland football as a four-star wide receiver prospect. He was one of the program’s most highly touted recruits in the class of 2016. Last week against Minnesota the freshman made his first career start — at cornerback.
Ellis beat out sophomore JC Jackson because the freshman performed better in practice throughout the week. The two are listed as co-starters on the depth chart ahead of the Michigan State game on Saturday night. Jackson is no slouch, so for Ellis to reach his level is pretty impressive.
It didn’t come completely out of nowhere: Like many top high school receivers, Ellis moonlighted on defense and special teams at DeMatha. The idea of Ellis as a two-way college player began in fall camp, when he and fellow freshman Jake Funk took reps on both sides. Cornerback depth was a serious question mark for the Terps all summer; wide receiver depth was not.
But Ellis was far from a polished defensive back. He saw game action at corner in early-season blowouts, and was beaten for a touchdown against Howard. He kept learning the position through practice, however. Because of the hypercompetitive atmosphere at Maryland practices, Ellis was still able to battle for a starting spot every week.
“Tino has been having some consistent practices where he’s just been outperforming,” defensive coordinator Andy Buh told reporters Wednesday. “We gave him an opportunity and that’s how it happens. That’s one great thing about our program: every guy earns their seat at the table every day.”
Ellis’ first start doubled as a birthday present, but his play proved that the opportunity wasn’t simply gifted to him. He only recorded one tackle, but he had two of the team’s four pass breakups on the day, including one on a third down that forced a Minnesota punt. “For his first start, he played unbelievably well,” Buh said.
The freshman is still honing his technique at the position, which is understandable. Wide receiver D.J. Moore, who frequently lined up against Ellis during Tuesday’s practice, says Ellis has improved his hands and his eyes. He’s also gathering feedback from veterans in both position groups.
“If me, [Levern Jacobs] or Teldrick [Morgan] or any of the receivers beat him on a route and catch a ball, he’ll ask what he did wrong, what could he do better,” Moore said. “So he takes our comments on what he did and adds them into his game to fix it.”
Ellis may very well still have a future alongside Moore and the other Maryland receivers; Buh said the coaching staff still views him as a two-way player. But his present is at corner, where he’s come a long way in a short time.