Editor’s note: Every day, from now until Penn State football’s Class of 2017 reports to campus June 24, we’ll highlight a different one of the Nittany Lions’ 17 incoming signees. Today is Day 5 of the 17-day series.
Benedictine College Preparatory head football coach Greg Lilly was in the Marine Corps for eight years — and he is also the admissions director for the Richmond, Va., school that combines a Catholic and military academy feel.
He knows a leader when he sees one.
So when he brings in prospective middle school students, he turns to one guy: Corps of Cadets first lieutenant and middle linebacker Ellis Brooks.
Brooks, an incoming four-star Penn State freshman, is a natural leader on and off the gridiron. He’s a player who can wallop a running back then help him up, pat him on the butt and send him back to the huddle.
“Whatever I do, I always try to come in and I try to be leader,” Brooks said. “I know God blessed me with great leadership abilities, and there’s no reason I should waste those.”
Lilly trusts Brooks to take prospective students off on his own because of his magnetic personality and because Brooks says he is “100 percent” on bringing kids in.
“If somebody’s my shadow, he’s coming,” Brooks said with a laugh. “He’s coming.”
First Lieutenant Brooks
Benedictine has a heavy dose of military structure and rigor.
Students present at formation every morning, and they attend eight 45-minute classes every day. They are always — always — expected to be on time.
To enforce that, the school relies on its Corps of Cadets. Students hold many different leadership positions, from staff sergeant to lieutenant colonel battalion commander.
Brooks holds a first lieutenant rank and leads a platoon of about 40 students. He makes sure his subordinates are in correct uniform and show up to formation on time, enforcing strict rules in the school’s handbook.
“People respect me; I respect them,” Brooks said. “We have a mutual respect and a mutual understanding of the standards of the school, what needs to be upheld when it comes to your appearance and being on time and just following the rules and acting how you’re supposed to be.”
That’s not limited to outdoor exercises either. Benedictine math teacher John Fogarty, a Cadets assistant football coach, remembers a freshman Brooks as a quiet and hard worker. And this year, in pre-calculus, Fogarty said the humble 3.7 GPA-toting student was the best in the class.
“It’s just the way he carries himself,” Fogarty said. “He doesn’t make a big deal about himself, it’s just that he’s Ellis Brooks. ... He’s got a great personality. He does have an air about him, but it’s not one of those airs that makes you really uncomfortable because it’s a bad air.”
The football field has ranks of its own — coaches, captains, starters, varsity, junior varsity, etc.
Brooks, who stands at 6-foot-2 and 233 pounds, rose through those ranks pretty fast.
He started playing organized football when he was 4 years old. Although the league was for 5-year-olds, he said his dad didn’t give a birth certificate, so Brooks began practicing.
But when the games started and it was discovered that he was too young, Brooks couldn’t play in games and was only allowed to practice with the team. But that was OK; Brooks said he just wanted to play.
At career day in kindergarten, while all the other kids were teachers and lawyers, Brooks told his classmates he wanted to be a football player.
“(My mom) was like, ‘If you don’t pick something else.’ She wanted me to say doctor or something, but that’s always been my dream,” Brooks said. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted to be, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be there one day.”
And when it came time for high school, Greg Lilly said there was no doubt Brooks was going to be an impact player in multiple ways. Typically, freshmen start on JV — but that wasn’t the case for this hard-hitting rookie.
“After watching him in our hitting drills and in our first scrimmage, we kind of said, ‘All right, we can’t put him on JV because he’s going to hurt a kid. He’s going to hurt a ninth grader,’” Lilly recalled.
In his freshman year, Brooks lined up at fullback and simply hit people, giving him a chance to learn the play-calls. In his sophomore year, he was moved to middle linebacker.
Since then, he’s recorded 100-plus tackles in each of the last three seasons.
“He’s just able to anticipate things very well based on formations and alignments and things like that,” Lilly said. “Then he gets to the football very well. I think there’s times when you sit there and and you go, ‘Oh, he’s not going to be able to get to that gap.’ And then he gets to the gap.”
In Little League, Brooks was called “Captain Crunch” and though the name disappeared in high school, as has his baseball career — he threw 86 mph as a freshman pitcher before stopping to focus on football — the talent remains.
“He’s unbelievable as an athlete and in terms of hitting,” Fogarty said. “When he hits people, I know for a fact there were guys on our team who were involved in the tackle like, ‘What are you doing?’ Because they got hit too.”
Brooks sees it as his brand of football.
But his brand is only made possible because of his preparation. Lilly said Brooks watches the most film on the team and is a leader on the field in how he communicates the gameplan with his teammates and gets them lined up.
“If somebody’s doing good, I’ll let them know,” Brooks said. “If somebody needs to do better, I’ll let them know too. I’m a leader to people how I want somebody to be a leader to me.”
Said Lilly: “He’s the kid that kind of strikes fear into the parents of opposing kids that we play against. But if they knew the kid, if they saw us in street clothes after the game and saw him talking with the coaches and parents and other kids, they’d be like, ‘Man that’s the kid I want my boys to go to school with.’”
The Penn State Connection
Brooks calls former Penn State quarterback and NFL fullback Michael Robinson “Cuzzo.”
Though the two aren’t related by blood, Brooks’ father was childhood friends with Robinson’s — and they’ve been family friends ever since, talking on the phone every once in a while and running into each other from time to time.
Robinson played at Penn State from 2002-2005, so it’s no surprise when Brooks says he’s wanted to play for the Nittany Lions since he was 4.
He used sit in the stands at Beaver Stadium and even had Penn State gear in his room when he was a little kid still trying to master the proper tackle.
“I remember meeting Coach (Joe) Paterno, Coach (Larry) Johnson who’s the Ohio State coach, back when he was at Penn State,” Brooks said. “(Johnson) actually pinned a little Lion on my chest and he was like, ‘When you get older, I want you to come play for me.’”
Though Johnson is gone, Brooks is slated to be a Lion.
He said Robinson honestly didn’t play a factor in the actual decision, that he encouraged him to do whatever he has to do and go wherever was right for him.
But the soon-to-be Lion linebacker may have gotten some help from another member of “Linebacker U.”
Brooks was invited to play at the 2017 Under Armor All-America Game and played under none other than Penn State great LaVar Arrington.
The young linebacker calls Arrington “Uncs” now and sees him as an uncle figure, someone he was blessed to learn from and someone who may have put in a good word with the Lions coaching staff.
In the four or five days of practice leading up to the game, Brooks was named a captain for his team, which was one of his two goals.
The other was to put his talents on display.
“I was like, ‘I got to get one. This is my style of football. This is what labels me as a football player, I got to get somebody,’” Brooks said. “It was on kickoff, and I went down and I had a pretty nice hit and the crowd reacted to it.”
Not only did the crowd react to his play, but Lilly said the game may be where coaches saw he could cover ground and deliver a blow as well.
Brooks took five official visits to Oregon, LSU, Maryland, Northwestern and Penn State.
The Lions were late to offer though and Brooks had a chip on his shoulder when he went on his official visit. It eventually came down to the Terrapins and the Lions — but, about a week after James Franklin made his offer, Brooks decided to follow his childhood dream.
“People at other schools are questioning whether we’re still ‘Linebacker U’ only because different college programs have been pushing our linebackers,” Brooks said, adding he wants to make an impact on the college football world.
“Definitely going out there and trying to bring back the dominance and let everybody know that Penn State is still LBU.”
When he arrives on campus, Brooks won’t be a captain or a first lieutenant, he’ll be a freshman deep on the depth chart, but Lilly and Fogarty said Benedictine prepared him to be the low man on the totem pole again.
They know he’s going to have to compete for everything — and he knows it too.
“Good leaders are always good followers at the same time,” Brooks said. “It’s not like I’m going to come in there barking out upperclassmen telling them that they need to do something.
“I’m going to try to go in there right now and just do whatever the coaches need me to do, do whatever’s best for the team, whatever shoes they need me to fill out there.”
Overview of Ellis Brooks
Hometown/high school: Mechanicsville, Va./Benedictine College Preparatory
Height/weight: 6-foot-1/220 pounds
Recruit rankings: 4 stars (ESPN, Rivals, Scout); 3 stars (247)
Other scholarship offers: LSU, Maryland, Northwestern, Michigan, Oregon, Notre Dame, Duke, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, N.C. State, Northwestern, Pitt, South Carolina, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest
James Franklin says: “I do think Ellis was a great one to sign with us late in the process at a position in need. ... We were able to get a really good person from a really good family and a really good high school coach to jump on board with us.”