State College’s Keaton Ellis smiled through his facemask Saturday as he walked toward the south end zone, high-fiving teammates and embracing others after the Blue-White Game.
Penn State’s true freshman had plenty to be happy about, after all.
The early enrollee, who played his high school games two miles from Beaver Stadium, boasted a spring to remember. Not only was he named one of the Nittany Lions’ three “takeaway kings” — for forcing the most turnovers in spring practice — but the cornerback has already earned the respect of his teammates.
“He’s going to be a phenomenal player for us in the secondary,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “He could contribute this year, and I think that’s up to how he performs in fall camp. Keep an eye on him.”
It was difficult to find a veteran who wasn’t high on Ellis, even if he didn’t have a perfect Saturday. Linebacker Cam Brown, a senior, said he knew by the spring’s first or second practice that Penn State had reeled in a special one. Brown still remembers how Ellis broke on a nice pass during an earlier practice, the way he didn’t hesitate and the way he naturally snagged the interception.
“He didn’t have that freshman timidness that a lot of us get, that a lot of players get, because he’s sure of himself and he made the play,” Brown added. “You can’t teach that dog mentality and that will to fight.”
Ellis started his recruiting process as a hidden gem of sorts. He was a versatile three-star prospect, considered good not great by rating standards, and he missed most of his junior season with an injury. The only certainty at that point: Ellis was fast. He ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash in a June 2017 camp.
But, in his final high school season last fall, Ellis broke out. According to 247 Sports, he rose nearly 400 spots from the nation’s No. 495 overall prospect to No. 126. He finished his senior season with four interceptions and nine pass deflections on defense, while adding big numbers on offense — 50 catches for 888 yards and 15 touchdowns.
“He can run, he’s got length, he’s gotten stronger — and we like to recruit DBs who play wide receiver and vice versa,” coach James Franklin said following Saturday’s scrimmage. “And he’s a guy that’s got really natural ball skills. You saw that in high school, and that showed up.”
When asked if Ellis has the potential to contribute immediately and not redshirt this season, Franklin nodded. Ellis is in “really good position” to compete for significant playing time on special teams or defense, as long as he has a great summer.
Again, his current teammates aren’t surprised.
Third-year safety Jonathan Sutherland pointed to another practice that stood out in his mind. The defense was in quarters coverage and, during one pass play, Ellis sprinted on top of an over-route and picked it off. “That was pretty impressive,” Sutherland said.
“My first impression is he’s a really athletic guy,” Sutherland added. “Smart as well. He’s got the playbook down.”
Ellis, who also caught punts Saturday, still has a long journey to get on the field, and an even longer road to become a starter. But for a teenager who’s just 140 days removed from his last high school game, one who played under the lights as a State College Little Lion, his progress as a Penn State Nittany Lion has been nothing short of impressive.
Although he technically didn’t record a breakup Saturday, he shadowed the Blue team’s starters and didn’t give them much room to make a catch. In the waning minutes of the game, with Blue throwing balls toward the end zone, Ellis was responsible for one missed catch. “Keaton Ellis!” screamed a giddy Antonio Shelton, a defensive tackle who was on the Blue team playing against Ellis.
Th 5-foot-11, 180-pound freshman recorded four tackles Saturday, including two solo stops that reflected his grasp of fundamentals. That wasn’t lost on defensive coordinator Brent Pry.
“Super excited about the spring that Keaton had,” Pry said. “Coverage-wise, attacking the ball, good man skills, zone discipline. The last piece we got to see today — he had some really nice tackles, where he put his face on guys and wrapped and ran through them. I think Keaton’s going to help us.”
Added Franklin: “He kind of checks all the boxes right now.”