Penn State assistant coach Terry Smith has spent hours upon hours watching high school film to figure out the country’s best cornerback — but, as it turns out, he only needed to take a 2.5-mile trek downtown to find him.
State College’s Keaton Ellis, who officially signed with Penn State on Wednesday, impressed Smith above all.
“He’s a completely dominant player,” Smith said Wednesday. “You watch his film, to me, I think he’s got the best corner film in the country of all corners — and we watched them all.”
Ellis sported a shy smile Thursday at his high school, while his friends, coaches and family belatedly celebrated his signing in a small third-floor auditorium. The 5-foot-11, 177-pound cornerback didn’t realize Smith made that statement on the first day of the early signing period — Ellis said, with so many good players, he couldn’t say he was the best — but he still appreciated the sentiment.
“It means a lot,” Ellis said. “He’s obviously really excited about me, he’s told me that — but I’m really excited to get up with him and start working with him because I know he’ll make me the best football player I can be.”
Ellis, a lifelong Penn State fan, is a not-so-hidden recruiting gem. Technically, he has the fewest offers out of the other 17 signees with just three. But that’s more a reflection of his Nittany Lion loyalty and the fact he was injured most of his junior season than it is his talent or film.
The State College native earned a Penn State offer in the summer of 2017 after running in the high-4.3s or low-4.4s at a PSU camp, but he missed most of the other camp circuit due to illness. (He committed three months after that offer.) Ellis’ junior film was then limited after he suffered an upper-body injury in September that kept him out for most of the season.
Opposing coaches didn’t have much to go on. They saw his size, his numbers, and some reached out to him on social media or via text — but Ellis either ignored them or turned them down. He was the Nittany Lions’ first commit of the 2019 class and, on Wednesday, he became the first to send in his letter of intent. He was concerned about Penn State, not how many other offers he could rack up.
“That wasn’t really a huge deal for me, especially knowing where I was going,” Ellis said. “I’ve never been that interested in that kind of stuff. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter.”
Ellis’ recruiting stock skyrocketed this past school year as analysts across the nation couldn’t ignore his film or ability. At one point, he was ranked as the best high school player in Pennsylvania —and, according to 247 Sports’ composite rankings, he’s now settled in at No. 3 in the Keystone State.
In their own rankings, 247 Sports rates him as one of the nation’s top-150 prospects. “Likely a mid-round NFL draft pick,” national recruiting analyst Brian Dohn wrote, while rating him a perfect-10 in ball skills.
Said State College coach Matt Lintal: “Keaton is the most athletically gifted athlete that I’ve ever had the honor of coaching. ... He doesn’t just have corner skills. He has the physicality of a safety with the skill-set of a corner and the height of a wide receiver.”
Ellis’ senior season was one of the school’s most memorable. He caught 15 touchdown passes, while accounting for more than 1,000 all-purpose yards and making four interceptions and nine pass deflections. Head coach James Franklin joked that every time Ellis stops over at the football building, the defensive coaches grow nervous about offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne stealing their recruit.
The four-star hometown prospect has heard that laughter, too. But, he noted Thursday, that’s all it is. No matter how impressive his offensive film might be, he’s a cornerback through and through.
“It’s just more exciting for me,” Ellis said about playing defense. “I love to tackle. And, offense, they tell you to run a route and then you go run it, you may or may not get the ball. Defense, you’re always reacting. You’re always doing something.”
Ellis will move into the university down the road on Jan. 5, fulfilling a lifelong dream while starting a new one. He doesn’t have any specific goals for his freshman campaign; he just wants to make an impact in the spring and compete for playing time in the fall.
And, as Smith tells it, Ellis’ future potential can’t be measured with stars or scholarship offers. He’s seen immeasurable growth since last winter and, even then, Smith came away impressed.
“I can remember going last winter to watch him play basketball, and he drives the lane and dunks on a kid — and I didn’t think he had that in him,” Smith said. “But that shows that competitive edge and that next-level type of competition.
“So we’re excited about him. We think he’s going to be a major contributor and just excited we get to get him in a few weeks.”