The Impact of Kevin Ellison
By BJ Bennett
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At a place where the past still shapes the future, Kevin Ellison has a unique resume that, in many ways, stands alone.
Georgia Southern has a storied football tradition, a timeline filled with countless memorable moments. Of recent accomplishments, Kevin Ellison has been right in the middle of most. In addition to ranking third in program history with 6,593 career offensive yards, the recent team captain led the Eagles to their famed triumph at Florida, paced an unprecedented transition to the FBS and started Georgia Southern's first bowl game ever. As the backdrop changed, it was often Ellison serving a natural role as locker room leader.
At a place where the past still shapes the future, Ellison has a unique resume that, in many ways, stands alone.
Fittingly, Ellison, furthering a fearless foundation laid by Erk Russell, won his first eleven Sun Belt Conference games. The Eagles became just the third-team all-time to claim a league title in a debut season at college football's highest level. Ellison's conviction was a big reason why. Russell once said that attitude might be worth 80 percent of any athlete's makeup; Ellison, intimidated by no foe, set the tone as Georgia Southern moved forward.
Team-wide, there was an energy, during the move, that Ellison helped channel.
"We moved up and they told us what our schedule was, it was just like a light switch flipped on we were like, 'OK we are ready for this'," he recalled.
In retrospect, a gritty showcase in Gainesville was step one. Then a redshirt-freshman, Ellison ran 15 times for 118 yards and two touchdowns as the Eagles stunned the homestanding Gators 26-20 in the Swamp. He rallied Georgia Southern back from an early 10-0 deficit, changing the course of the afternoon with a critical 45-yard scoring burst late in the second quarter. The end result was Georgia Southern's first win over a power five opponent and 429 yards rushing, the fourth-most all-time against the Gators.
An emotional effort, the triumph came after a trying year of transition for the Eagles.
"The season wasn't going the way we had planned, but we told each other that this was a game we needed to win to really put us back on the map. That was one of the biggest victories of my life," Ellison smiled. "It was a great experience, being a young guy. I'm thankful for coach Monken and his staff for giving me an opportunity to go out there lead the team."
Even for a freshman playing in one of the toughest venues in the game, there was never any doubt.
"The whole week and a half of preparation we had to get ready for the game, the main focus was giving it all we had and laying it all on the line," Ellison continued. "We didn't go into the game nervous, we knew that all we had to do was do what we had to do and play for each other and we would come out on top."
A sign of things to come was Ellison's FBS introduction as the Eagles very nearly upended both North Carolina State and Georgia Tech to open the very next fall; Georgia Southern compiled 966 offensive yards against the Wolfpack and Yellow Jackets, falling by a combined total of just five points. The Eagles then promptly went undefeated through conference play. Included in that stretch was a 20-point win over rival Appalachian State.
Rather matter-of-factly, a program with six national championship banners had firmly planted its flag on new turf; Ellison was one of the pioneers holding the pole.
"It was a big deal, the Florida win, the bowl game, the transition from FCS to FBS. I took a lot of pride in it and humbled myself to do what I had to do," Ellison stated.
There was no implementation lag for Ellison or Georgia Southern. The Eagles immediately set new standards with how many games they won and how they won them. Georgia Southern led the nation with 379.9 rushing yards per game in year one, the most at that level in nearly two decades, also leading the way with 55 rushing touchdowns and 7.1 yards per attempt. Ellison, in 2014, was one of just four quarterbacks in major college football to both throw for and run for over 1,000 yards.
From there, the milestones continued. So, too, did the victories. The Eagles officially settled in as one of the top programs in their new league, continuing to turn heads in-state by also taking Georgia to overtime in Athens. Georgia Southern, once more, ranked number one in the country in rushing, while also scoring the most touchdowns on the ground and averaging the most yards per carry yet again.
A new path, for Ellison and the Eagles, then took a turn for the Gulf Coast. Mobile, Alabama was the site of Georgia Southern's inaugural bowl game, a GoDaddy Bowl clash with Mid-American Conference champion Bowling Green. The Eagles set a Sun Belt bowl record for points in a 58-27 win; Ellison found Montay Crockett for a key 31-yard score late in the second quarter. On a rainy night, it was a surreal showing, with Georgia Southern scoring the most postseason points in college football in a profile-elevating performance.
Though the Eagles struggled, at times, a year ago, Ellison continued to push ahead. He saved the most dynamic showing of his career for last, a grand Senior Day finale in a 28-24 victory over Troy. Ellison started the game at wide receiver and caught a nine-yard pass on Georgia Southern's first play; he finished the day with ten rushes for 115 yards and two touchdowns and 10-of-14 passing for 127 yards and two more scores, including a 64-yard game-winner to B.J. Johnson in the fourth quarter.
By any and all measures, Ellison walked off the field at Paulson Stadium a winner.
"Probably one of the best experiences of my life besides having my two kids. It has been fun," he nodded of his career with the Eagles. "Statesboro is a good area with nice people and a great football program. It was a great opportunity to be able to be put in a position to be a team leader, making sure that everybody was doing what they needed to be doing."
There simply aren't many who filled up the record books quite like Ellison did; he ran the football 551 times and threw it 402 more. In 2013, 2014 and 2016, Ellison earned all-conference honors. After finishing his prep career ranked 10th in Georgia history in total touchdowns scored, the Cornelia-native now has a college legacy all his own. Ellison is part of a very real quarterback fraternity at Georgia Southern, past players who helped take the Eagles to new heights.
Few, ever, as amateurs in the Peach State, have made the impact Ellison has. At Georgia Southern, he followed the lead of those he is suddenly held in high company with.
"It was a great honor. I've talked to a lot of those guys one-and-one and they had the same mindset of the rest of us, to go out there and do your job, to play for your teammates and make sure you are the one to lead the team," Ellison detailed. Just getting their perspective on the game and running the triple-option was good. It gave me a deeper motivation that I could be one of those type of guys if I worked my tail off to get where they were."
Ellison's significance is not lost on the legends that came before him.
"Kevin really was a vital part of the program. His leadership led to the success over the last four years. His talent made him an icon for others to follow. Along with that, his personality really carried the program," concluded Jayson Foster, 2007 Walter Payton Award winner. "He was part of monumental wins which helped recruiting for the future. He was a competitor, tough and a winner. His efforts really spoke volumes about what type of players GSU is looking for."
Through changes of many types, Ellison was a constant for the Eagles. He will be remembered as one of the program's all-time greats.
"I didn't know coming into my college career that I would be one of those players up there, but it was God's plan and I'm very thankful for that," Ellison added. "With all of these different coaches we had, I'm glad that they still gave me the opportunity to go out there to lead the team. It's a great feeling."
Looking ahead, dedication could continue to be key for Ellison as he pursues a future in professional football. A natural playmaker, Ellison has been working out at wide receiver in preparation for his next challenge. Versatility is one of Ellison's individual strengths. His mindset, in addition to past production and his physical skills, has long been an asset as well.
As Ellison works towards another goal, he embarks on a new journey with a familiar feel. Ellison's perspective is coming full-circle.
"It builds your motivation and confidence, knowing that you are able to play at the highest level. That's what everybody dreams of," he acknowledged. "That's why me and my buddies have been training so hard for the NFL. We feel like we have the high-caliber athleticism to play at the game speed of the NFL. Just like these college kids, they're excited to play at the highest level and I'm excited for them."
Though Ellison leaves Statesboro, his contributions remain clear to see. From the team-first mantra he set through his friendship with fellow quarterback Favian Upshaw to the determination he displayed in Georgia Southern's jump, Ellison's work was a continuation of the commitment of those who laid the foundation prior. He moves on with the program in a new position than when he arrived.
History, for the Eagles, is what makes Georgia Southern football special. It's there where you will find stories of perseverance and pride; it's there where you will find Kevin Ellison.