Indiana at Penn State
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 1250 AM
When freshman running back Morgan Ellison arrived at Indiana, it was running backs coach Deland McCullough who drove his recruitment.
But a month after Ellison committed to the Hoosiers, McCullough had decided to take the running backs job at USC, leaving the freshman back without his greatest and only true connection to IU from the recruiting process.
“I was taking a nap I think and somebody sent me a screenshot and was like 'Coach McCullough has got the job at USC,' and I'm like 'What?' ” Ellison said. “So I texted my dad and my dad's like 'No way.' At the end of the day this is the only coach I knew here 'cause I was so late in the process.”
As a recruit, Ellison had his fair share of issues garnering attention. After suffering two broken legs in his high school career, Ellison had a difficult time getting together enough highlights for his tape prior to his senior season.
However, when McCullough heard about the big-bodied power-back who seemingly had some bad luck at Pickerington Central, he decided to investigate.
At this time, the recruiting pressure had picked up for Ellison, but he was left reeling on the heels of his second broken leg. And after receiving mostly MAC offers entering the later stages of the process, Ellison came in contact with McCullough.
“He was a guy who was very intriguing to me, because of his size and his ability to run, his change of direction,” McCullough said. “But the thing that stood out most to me over a time, and I still say it to this moment, is you can't teach tackle breaking. Everybody talks about speed and all those things like that and I get that, but that guy's ability to break tackles is very uncanny.”
Although he was in Ellison's corner, McCullough still had to make a strong push with then-head coach Kevin Wilson to recruit him. The leg injuries were a concern of Wilson's despite what Ellison had shown on tape in his senior year and the Hoosiers were hoping to fill the final spot of their class with a linebacker.
“As the season went on the guy was putting together a great tape,” McCullough said. “And obviously I talked to coach Wilson and those guys. They were aware that he was somebody that I liked. I just wanted to be in a strong position to present him as somebody to move forward on.”
Finally, after much debate and the firing of Wilson, McCullough was able to convince new head coach Tom Allen that Ellison was worth the offer. Once offered, Ellison immediately committed to the Hoosiers, despite his official announcement not coming until signing day.
“He was fired up,” McCullough said of Ellison's reaction to the scholarship offer. “I like guys like that – the guy that felt like he has something to prove. And he wanted an opportunity to show on a Big Ten Stage that he could be the type of back that I know for a fact I thought he could be.”
Once at IU, Ellison faced an upward battle on and off the field. Being the last guy in the class, he had a massive depth chart to climb in the Hoosiers backfield. It also took Ellison time to get accustomed to the Hoosiers coaching staff, as McCullough was the only real contact he had at Indiana during the recruiting process.
Upon the coaching change, Ellison was quickly taken under the wings of safeties coach Noah Joseph and more importantly, new running backs coach Mike Hart.
Growing up in Ohio, Ellison always had been an Ohio State fan, so when he got the news about Hart, a former star at Michigan, it wasn't the first time he'd heard his new coach's name.
“I went back when I found out he was my coach and started watching the film and I was like 'Oh this guy's the truth right here.'” Ellison said.
Ellison and Hart hit it off, and the hesitations that might have existed when McCullough left were soon turned into positives. Hart was also quick to build a relationship off the field with Ellison.
The son of a pastor, Ellison was always looking for guys on the team to go to church with. But as the grind of the season came into play, some of the players he had been going with fell off.
“Coach Hart asked me and said, 'Are you going to church?' And I said 'Nobody wanted to go. I didn't want to go by myself [to the] city church up the street,'” Ellison explained. “I said 'Nobody wanted to go.' He said, 'Well look, my family goes so you can come with us.'”
Now as the season progresses and Ellison's relationships with Hart, other coaches and his teammates continue to build, on the field his game is flourishing as well.
In last week's 52-17 win over Georgia Southern, Ellison rushed for 186 yards along and added two touchdowns. He was subsequently named the Big Ten Freshman of Week for his performance.
“I think it's great for him to have that success,” starting quarterback Richard Lagow said after Tuesday morning's practice. “And he came today with a great attitude which is even better 'cause it's just one game and this game [against No. 4 Penn State] coming up is the most important game of the year because that's our next game.”
Entering this week, Ellison has been promoted to second-string running back after starting the season as the fourth or fifth option.
“They have a very good defense,” Ellison said of the Nittany Lions. “We watched film on them and I think if we do what our coaches are teaching us this week we'll be just fine.”