Everything changed for Kevin Ellison on Nov. 23.
That day, the game clock hit zero in the fourth quarter at the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. Georgia Southern — which was paid $550,000 to play as a 27 1/2-point underdog in its season finale — was still on top for a 26-20 upset over the Gators, securing the rare upset by an FCS program against an FBS force.
Ellison, a 2012 Habersham Central grad and redshirt freshman still new to the Eagles as a first-year starting quarterback, immediately became a campus hero. He rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the huge victory, including a goal-line touchdown early in the third quarter that gave Georgia Southern its first lead of the game.
One quarter earlier, he won a foot race to the end zone against Florida’s entire secondary for a 45-yard score.
“As a unit, we were talking to each other and saying, ‘we have to get this and step our game up,’” Ellison said. “And that’s what we did. We had confidence in each other, and we motivated each other to play at our full potential.”
The Eagles’ stunner against a team of Florida’s caliber echoed across social media. ESPN took a moment to highlight their big plays, including Ellison’s massive touchdown run. The celebration was on in Statesboro.
Georgia Southern’s cafeteria even served alligator meat for the players when they returned to further commemorate one of the program’s biggest victories.
“To come back and to have the support from so many people was great,” Ellison said. “That whole week on campus was crazy. It was all over social media. People on campus were crazy.
“An all-around great experience.”
Ellison’s performance on Nov. 23 confirmed his arrival in the Georgia Southern football program. In his first active year with the Eagles, he rushed for 982 yards and eight touchdowns on 127 carries.
He led the team with 756 passing yards and three touchdowns, not that passing is a big deal in the Eagles’ triple-option offense. He didn’t have a single completion against Florida.
But Ellison didn’t need one.
A quarterback with a scrambling mentality since his days at Habersham Central, he’s a perfect fit for the Eagles’ offense, which led all FCS teams with 3,964 rushing yards this season.
He played in similar schemes as a senior with the Raiders, amassing 2,138 yards from the signal-caller position for the sixth-highest rushing total in the country among quarterbacks that season. He scored 32 touchdowns and was named Class AAAA Offensive Player of the Year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Our coaches do a great job of emphasizing all the small techniques that I have to learn how to do and get better,” Ellison said. “It was a really great going into a program knowing you’re ahead of the game and that there’s still a lot more to learn.”
With the tides surely changing at Georgia Southern this spring after head coach Jeff Monken announced his departure to Army on Tuesday, Ellison may have a new list of responsibilities coming his way as the bona fide No. 1 starter for the Eagles in 2014. Should the next coach run a more traditional offense that shifts more focus to the pass game, Ellison might become a running back in the future.
Ellison rushed for 1,159 yards at the running back position from 2009-2010 at Habersham Central, so he wouldn’t be completely unfamiliar with the possible change. But his high school coach, Stuart Cunningham, says his adaptation to the quarterback role in the option also came with a better passing arm.
“Once he understood and started executing the option, he was a weapon like no other,” said Cunningham, who coached the Raiders from 2009-2012 and is still the school’s wrestling coach. “His senior season he was sixth in the nation in rushing for quarterbacks and also threw for over 1,000 yards, a long way from a kid who couldn’t throw well three years before.”
That’s where Ellison’s value as an athlete resides — his quick adaptability.
Cunningham’s son, Coleman, grew up with Ellison, so the former Habersham Central head coach witnessed his talent from the fourth grade until high school. Already a standout in football and basketball, Raider coaches introduced him to baseball because of his incredible speed to first base. It also inadvertently improved his throwing ability, which carried over to the football field.
“One of the greatest things about Kevin is with all that talent he continues to develop every area,” Cunningham said. “Kevin is also the youngest of four brothers and they all could play, but Kevin seem to be able to take things to whatever level was needed. He is a humble and caring person that truly understands what it is like to be a teammate.”
Ellison will be part of a new chapter in Georgia Southern football next season, when the Eagles move from the Southern Conference to FBS level as a member of the Sun Belt. They’ll have a new cast of tougher opponents from larger universities while keeping FCS rival Appalachian State, which is also moving up.
It won’t be an easy transition, but Ellison is doing his homework.
“We know the competition is going to be a lot higher,” Ellison said. “We’re going to have to practice harder and make sure we’re watching a lot of film, and knowing what the other teams are going to be doing.”
If there’s any method to prepare for tougher competition, taking down a team like Florida will do it.
Ellison has already checked that off his list.
“We did a great job of being able to get focused to play a bigger opponent,” he said. “We had to play harder and play stronger. If we were focused on that, we were all confident going into the game.”