When you want to talk with Justice Ellison, you likely are going to be waiting a little bit. As part of the media team that assembles to talk to players and coaches after practices, if interviewing Ellison is in your plans, you know you will likely be the last reporter out. He has more work to do first. But if reading the early tea leaves is accurate, the waiting is over for Wake Forest’s Ellison as “the” guy in Demon Deacons’ running back room.
Last season, the run game was definitely by committee. Ellison got most of the starts, the majority of the carries, and led the team in rushing yards. But he was not always the go-to ball carrier. That very well could change this season.
The Committee Has Changed
Last year’s running game committee had Ellison, Christian Turner, and Quinton Cooley. Turner is now at Indiana and Cooley is at Liberty. The transfer portal giveth and the transfer portal taketh away. For Ellison, it may be handing him a new opportunity. With the two departed players, that is 179 carries and 762 yards out the door from 2022.
Wake head coach Dave Clawson will say this Spring that he still intends to have some form of shared ball carries this season. But behind Ellison, (170 carries for 707 yards and six touchdowns in 2022), primarily is Will Towns. The redshirt sophomore from New Jersey showed potential last year. But with a dozen carries worth of experience for Towns, it is Ellison’s role to grab the lead now.
Getting him to talk about it takes some patience as he is usually one of the last to leave the workouts after practice as was the case Tuesday, along with some of his position teammates. “We’re turning it up,” Ellison said when we pointed this out. “Every single day we have things to work on.
He told us there is a tangible goal from one day to the next, and that goal can change daily. “We’re having that mindset that every single time we step out on that field, we really want to focus on two things to get better at every day. If the whole group is doing that, it raises not only the running back room but the whole team.”
He adds that the change for him comes from watching the films from practice. “I’m watching the film, and yes, I’m watching the good things to add on to those. But the majority of the time I’m looking for the bad things so that the next day at practice I can grow and do better in those things.”
Ellison credits the team’s leadership committee for helping him find a new focus. He told us the group spent some time during the off-season studying the work habits of Peyton Manning. “He was in his 12th season, and in training camp he was going over his footwork, improving his five-step drop.” Ellison said the idea that one of the best in the league with Super Bowl trophies to his credit was still working on finer details to get better made an impression on him. “He had that mindset that ‘We’ve always got to elevate, and we’ve always got to grow.’”
Ellison told us that got him to his ever-evolving list of two things to work on every day. “One of the things I am working on is to have better vision and to see the cuts before they happen. Once I see the cut, let the game come to me.” Anticipating the cuts is not an easy thing to learn, Ellison said. It is what drives him to the film room for hours at a time. Watching the game teaches him how to anticipate what is coming next, he told us.
He said he has also been picking the mind of former standout Wake Forest running back Chris Barclay, who capped a standout career in Winston-Salem in 2005 as the ACC Player of the Year. He remains the school’s all-time leading career rusher with 4,032 yards. Ironically enough, he is now the running backs coach for conference rival Louisville. “I’ve been trying to pick his brain because he had great vision running the ball,” Ellison said. “I’m just trying to see how I can elevate my game.”
The fourth-year player from Ashburn, Virginia said he also recognizes that with the departure of Cooley and Turner, he is the elder statesman in the running back room, so there are other elements expected of him. He said there is give and take with the likes of Demond Claiborne and Towns. “It’s not like Justice is the head man all the time. Those guys are challenging me daily, too.”
Still, the carries are likely to be primarily his at least early on. “Our goal is to have a lot more explosive plays. We want to get 20-plus yards every carry. I know it sounds crazy, but to have that, you have to really come with that approach that you’re going to do it.”
As the leader of the running back pack, he is going to get his chances this season. He has been waiting, and we have been waiting to talk to him about it.
Photo courtesy: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports