Early on in his football development, Tino Ellis was told that he should think about switching from wide receiver to cornerback.
First it was his father, Chuck, who coached the younger of his two sons on a youth football team in Gambrills. It was in a league not limited by size and the younger Ellis, who was around 5-foot-9 at age 13, had to play against 6-foot-2 receivers.
“I told him that you’ll probably end up playing corner at some point, so just prepare yourself to make the switch,” the elder Ellis recalled this week. “He did a good job at it and I kind of knew. He just resisted because he liked playing with the ball in his hands.”
Then it was Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, who trained Ellis and other young teenage players in Baltimore and Washington while he was the coach at Friendship Collegiate Academy, a program that became a pipeline to Maryland.
"I thought [about] his growth potential and told him he was going to be a corner, a [defensive back],” Abdul-Rahim, now in his third season as a Maryland assistant, said Tuesday. “He looked like he was going to be a big, fast, physical corner.
“He was pretty mature for the seventh grade, his movement skills were a little bit advanced for his age, for that position. If you get technique with God-given ability, you’ve got a good player on your hands.”
A little more than five years after those training sessions began, Ellis and Abdul-Rahim reunited at Maryland. Ellis was a four-star prospect at wide receiver who was part of DJ Durkin’s first recruiting class in 2016. Abdul-Rahim coached the secondary.
Abdul-Rahim actually had to recruit Ellis twice.
The first time came when Ellis, whose family lived in Reisterstown, was in high school at DeMatha Catholic and he was part of a group of players to commit to Maryland, including running back Lorenzo Harrison III and wide receiver DJ Turner.
The second time came when Abdul-Rahim was trying to add athleticism to the Maryland secondary during the 2016 season when there was more potential playing time for cornerbacks than there was for wide receivers.
“It wasn’t going to be a permanent move as I recall,” Abdul-Rahim said. “We didn’t have a lot of depth, so we wanted freshmen to play. We played a few players both ways and he was one of the guys that was just more natural at corner.”
After Ellis played both receiver and cornerback as a freshman in the season opener against Howard, Abdul-Rahim recalled, ”I went and snatched him up and kept him over with us.”
Starting once as a freshman and in six of the team's 12 games a year ago as a sophomore, Ellis has taken over after the early departure of JC Jackson (now with the New England Patriots) and is typically assigned to cover the opponent’s top receiver.
Ellis said the most difficult part of the conversion was learning the playbook and to “flip it” so that he could have a better understanding of what he was supposed to do as a cornerback than as a receiver.
“In year 3, I have more knowledge of the playbook,” Ellis said after practice Tuesday night. “So I know where I need to be and certain plays compared to my freshman year when I was out there trying to learn technique and trying to learn the game.”
Asked if his background as a wide receiver has helped in his development as a cornerback, Ellis said, “It definitely gives me insight. Sometime I can tell by the step or the release of the receiver what he is going to do.”
Ellis was reminded about his youthful reluctance to play cornerback. Ellis, who played a little safety at DeMatha, said he started to change his mind as he studied who was playing the position when he got to college.
“I watched other guys work, such as Will Likely III, who mentored me,” said Ellis, who leads the Terps with seven pass breakups, including five against Minnesota in a 42-13 win. “That made me want to play the position even more.”
Ellis said Likely became almost a personal coach on the sideline and in the film room when the former all-Big Ten cornerback tore his ACL midway through his senior year in 2016.
“He showed me how to watch film, look at the breaks of the receivers,” Ellis said.
Abdul-Rahim said Ellis has gone from taking “baby steps” in trying to learn a new position where “it becomes about your instincts and muscle memory just takes over. It takes time. He’s done a great job.”
Not that Abdul-Rahim, who came to Maryland after serving two years on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama, is totally satisfied with the progress the now-6-foot-1, 195-pound Ellis has made at cornerback.
“There’s plenty of room for improvement, but he’s on the right path,” Abdul-Rahim said. “You see a different player from the year before, so you hope it continues to go the same way.”
Though he has developed into a key player for a much-improved defense, this has been a tough year for Ellis personally. Three months after the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, Ellis suffered another profound loss.
Last Thursday night, former DeMatha High teammate Jaylen Brown plunged to his death from a 16th-floor dormitory room window at Duquesne. Pittsburgh police are investigating Brown’s death and have characterized it as a “tragic accident.”
Chanel Ellis said that her son was part of a group chat of former DeMatha players, including Brown, “every day.” According to Ellis’ mother, Brown will be buried Monday, the same day her younger son turns 21.
In January, one of the closest friends of Ellis’ older brother, Shelton, also died. Evan Pittman, who had played football at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, had been like a second big brother to Tino Ellis when he was growing up in Baltimore.
“The year has been very rough for him,” Chanel Ellis said.
On Father’s Day, a few days after McNair died from heatstroke, the Ellis’ 11-year-old family dog, a Yorkshire Terrier named Sunny, died.
“Some people don’t understand, but that really broke Tino,” Chanel Ellis said. “He grew up with that dog. He broke down.”
Ellis acknowledged that the past few months have been difficult, but have helped him mature and put football in a different light.
“It definitely made me look at life through a different perspective, appreciate the small things and appreciate people and the time people have with one another,” Ellis said. “And just trying to stay strong and keep a positive mind through the whole thing.”