On a recent Monday afternoon, chatter echoed off the walls of the North Gym lobby as dozens of players joked around during a pregame meal. But State College assistant football coach Mark Baney didn’t mind the noise. When asked about Keaton Ellis — a Little Lion turned Nittany Lion come Wednesday — his voice bellowed with pride.
“My first impression of him was, oh man, this is Tony Johnson,” said Baney, who coached the former Penn State wideout, his record-setting brother, Larry, and former Denver Broncos pass-catcher Jordan Norwood. “That was my first instinct. He’s got what those kids had. He can be really something special.”
To his credit, Baney wasn’t wrong. Ellis — a four-star cornerback and the No. 2 player in Pennsylvania, per 247 Sports’ base rankings — is set to sign with the Nittany Lions when the early signing period begins Wednesday. The No. 126 prospect in the country was the first Centre County football player since State College’s Alex Kenney in 2010 to secure a Penn State offer.
Ellis, who accounted for 1,376 yards, 17 offensive touchdowns and four INTs as a senior, plans to graduate from State College early and enroll at Penn State for the spring semester. After signing Wednesday, Ellis will be 19 days away from starting classes.
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Although he committed to Penn State on Sept. 9, 2017 — becoming the first member of James Franklin’s 2019 class — Ellis admitted that the reality of starting his collegiate career is still a bit surreal. But the 6-foot cornerback is eager to put pen to paper and send his letter of intent to the Lasch Building. He’s eager to bring Beaver Stadium the natural ability that ignited Memorial Field. He’s eager to finally live out his dream.
“Growing up, you always have the idea of playing in the blue and white, especially as a fan,” Ellis said. “To see this come to fruition, it’s cool. I’m just excited to get up there, work hard, have some fun and enjoy my time.”
Added State College head coach Matt Lintal: “We’re super proud of who he is as a person. He’s got five-star character and a five-star heart, and that goes a long way. We’re thrilled about him representing us at Penn State.”
As Baney alluded, Ellis won’t be the first Little Lion to make the 2.4-mile trek from State High to Beaver Stadium. Larry Johnson, the Maxwell Award winner and unanimous first-team All-American in 2002, is the most noteworthy example. His brother, Tony, sits 15th all-time at Penn State in receptions and receiving yards. Norwood is sixth and seventh on those lists, respectively. New York Giants linebacker Nate Stupar and Super Bowl XX champion fullback Matt Suhey also shined at both State College and Penn State.
As far as comparisons to past State High greats, they’re inevitable and ever-present. Ellis hears the Norwood one the most from teachers and fans alike, something he appreciates and doesn’t take lightly. But those closest to him on Westerly Parkway believe Ellis will make a name for himself at Penn State doing what got him to this point: Being himself.
After all, this was somewhat of a meteoric rise for Ellis. The future Nittany Lion started organized football in eighth grade. He later played on the State High freshman team, impressed and lightly contributed to the Little Lions’ 10-win campaign as a sophomore. In 10th grade, Ellis logged 328 all-purpose yards and nine passes defended.
But when Ellis witnessed Penn State’s monumental upset over Ohio State that year, he wasn’t sitting in the recruiting section. He sat with his dad, Bruce, who was a walk-on wideout under Joe Paterno, on the away side near midfleld. It wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that Ellis considered himself a prospect.
The undersized, lanky athlete impressed at Syracuse and Pitt camps and earned offers from Buffalo and Syracuse before attending a Penn State “Elite Camp” on June 17, 2017. That’s when he turned heads.
“Coach Franklin, Coach Pry and I had conversations prior to that about Keaton, and they had him on the radar already,” Lintal said. “And then Keaton went up there and performed as we thought he would.”
Ellis ran a hand-timed 4.39-second 40-yard dash. “After it, I realized what I had done and the opportunity I had opened for myself,” Ellis said. “It was pretty surreal.” That day, Franklin brought Ellis into his office and offered him a scholarship. Then an overlooked three-star prospect, he accepted 84 days later.
Ever since, Ellis has been a leader of Penn State’s 2019 class. That’s typical of the class’ first pledge. Sean Clifford embraced the role in 2017; Justin Shorter, along with Jesse Luketa, did the same in 2018. But it’s easier for Ellis to be a face of this class. He has the hometown perspective no one else can offer and can be around the Lasch Building more often. Ellis has visited Penn State, officially or unofficially, at least 10 times since committing.
When Ellis wasn’t selling prospective commits on Saturdays at Beaver Stadium, he was tearing up the Mid Penn Conference on Fridays. The all-purpose threat averaged 98.3 yards per game and boasted five multi-touchdown performances in 2018. Ellis alone outscored two State College opponents; the first time came in a five-touchdown showing against Carlisle.
Lintal said he’s never seen someone have a game like that. But he wasn’t surprised. “I was just amazed,” he added.
In three years at State College, Ellis had a penchant for the dramatic. As a junior, he scored at Mechanicsburg, broke his thumb, didn’t tell anyone of the seething pain at halftime and found the end zone two more times in a 62-25 win. Ellis missed the remainder of the regular season, but his legend grew.
“That shows his will to play,” quarterback Tommy Friberg said. “He doesn’t make any excuses.”
For Baney, that was the game that proved to him Ellis was ready for college ball.
“You knew right then and there, boy, this kid is going to play,” the coach said. “He’s going to play at the next level.”
That time is now for Ellis. Winter workouts are on the horizon. He’ll take the field at Beaver Stadium for the first time in the Blue-White Game on April 13. Then, if he impresses during spring practice and fall camp, he has a chance to play in Penn State’s 2019 opener against Idaho on Aug. 31, especially with the new redshirt rule.
Signing is simply a formality Wednesday. Ellis will have a small ceremony at State College on Thursday to celebrate his future. After that, his dream of being a Nittany Lion will be a reality.
“I’m ready,” Ellis said, “and I’m excited for the challenge.”