Shortly after I began contributing to Land Grant Holy Land, I realized that I was already struggling to come up with good content for the offseason/summer months. Hell of a start, right? But unfortunately, once the NFL Draft takes place, the content well tends to dry up unless you’ve already dialed in on one of the spring sports or the NBA Draft (but as Buckeye hoops fans... you get it). Ohio State football and basketball – our most popular topics – are still part of the news cycle, but they have taken a back seat. And recruiting... well, there are people at LGHL who do a hell of a job covering it, so I wasn’t about to swim with those sharks.
I needed to think outside the box. I thought: Football is months away, basketball is months away, recruiting is speculative and subject to change... many of the topics being covered now revolve around future events or predictions. But what about former players? And I’m not talking recent or soon-to-be draftees, because those athletes are still being talked or written about.
I am referring to unheralded and underappreciated Buckeyes from decades ago, that have been forgotten by some (or most) since they last donned the scarlet and gray. And there it was: Forgotten Buckeyes. Other OSU fans and media types have taken a similar approach to recognition, but this is my personal way of appreciating those who left an indelible mark at Ohio State.
Welcome to Volume II.
The tight end position at Ohio State has often been a thankless role — even more so during the 21st century. Despite having guys like Ballard, Stoneburner, Vannett, Heuerman, and Ruckert in the fold, OSU coaches have not utilized these big, athletic pass catchers with any sort of consistency. You could make an argument that heavy TE usage in college football is just not as prevalent as it is in the NFL – and you would have a point – but the Buckeyes have intentionally shied away from it (joking... I think). In this modern era where the forward pass is king, Ohio State has continued to use the TE like a pawn.
For this reason, I could have gone with any of the recent TE’s for Forgotten Buckeyes, and asked, “Hey, remember this guy?” Instead, I looked back to the 80’s and 90’s, when Earle Bruce and John Cooper were much more likely to target the TE, especially in the short passing game. The desire to look underneath so often speaks volumes about the quarterback play in Columbus around that time, but I’m not here to trash anybody or bring up the Buckeyes’ 1991 season (sports-reference.com has you covered). We are jumping in the way-back machine for this week’s edition.
John Frank (1980-83) is widely considered to be the greatest TE in OSU history. He finished his collegiate career with 121 career receptions for 1,481 yards, and produced two 45-catch seasons. He was the last arguable “star” Ohio State had at the position, and while Frank is certainly deserving of recognition, I wanted to go with a deep cut: a Forgotten Buckeye who never (or has not) received enough praise. The player I’m referring to is Jeff Ellis, and he is the last TE to lead the Buckeyes in receptions or receiving yards since 1988 — when he accomplished both.
Ellis attended high school in Louisville, Kentucky, where he excelled as a multi-sport athlete and became a Parade All-American in football. His father was Jimmy Ellis, a former heavyweight boxing champion and sparring partner of Muhammad Ali. Those two men also fought in 1971, and remained good friends. The younger Ellis was recruited by a who’s who of college football programs, before committing to Bruce and the Buckeyes as part of their 1987 class. At 6-foot-4, 250, he possessed a unique blend of size, speed, and athleticism, which allowed him to see the field early for Ohio State.
As a true freshman in ‘87, Ellis played in eight games, starting four of them. The Buckeyes had a wretched passing game, with only Everett Ross totaling more than 350 yards receiving. Ellis caught seven passes for just 63 yards all season, but his reception total was good for fourth on the team among non-running backs! His one (!) touchdown was good for third among the same group of players. He would then go on to catch lightning in a bottle the following season, and achieve something so special that it has not been done in the 30+ years since.
1988 was not a great year for Ohio State football… and that is putting it nicely. In reality, the Buckeyes stunk. Bruce was out, Cooper was in, and the program was in flux. Points for and against told a story of mediocrity, but one look at the team/individual stats would tell you a different version of the ’88 season. Greg Frey was the starting QB, and he passed for 2,028 yards with a 51.9 completion percentage. He threw 8 TD and 13 INT. The team used a stable of running backs, and Carlos Snow was the leading rusher with only 775 yards. Despite the offensive struggles, Ellis was a bright spot.
The sophomore TE brought in 40 receptions for 492 yards, leading the Buckeyes in both categories. Ellis averaged 12.3 yards per catch, and accounted for two of the eight passing TD that season. In a down year, he proved himself to be a dangerous offensive weapon. Unfortunately, he was one of the few. In an otherwise forgettable year, Ellis put up a memorable stat line. But his success was short-lived, even if OSU was able to rebound as a team.
Ellis injured his knee against USC in 1989, and missed the majority of the season. The Buckeyes improved to eight wins, led by a potent ground attack. The talented TE was certainly missed, but there were hopes he would regain his form the following season. However, Ellis was never quite the same post-surgery. He continued to deal with back luck and additional injuries, lowering the ceiling on his otherwise high potential.
Ellis played in eight games during the 1990 season, missing a few due to an ankle sprain. He entered the season in great shape, but suffered yet another setback which caused him to be in and out of the lineup. He finished the campaign with 12 catches for 151 yards and one TD. Ellis was then able to play 12 games in 1991, but his athleticism had taken a hit. He was no longer the same dynamic pass catcher, and he totaled just nine receptions for 118 yards and a TD as a redshirt senior.
Ellis ended his Ohio State career with 70 receptions for 863 yards and 5 TD, but many Buckeye fans were left wondering what could have been. Had he remained healthy, he might have approached the marks set by Frank. Alas, he “only” enjoyed great success in that 1988 season, but what a special one it was. As previously mentioned, it was the last time an OSU TE led the team in either of the major receiving categories. Ellis’ breakout season also accounted for the majority of his career receiving yards — a total which still ranks fourth in program history (among TE). Again, what could have been…
Ellis got involved in the construction industry post-football, and unfortunately passed in 2018. He was only 50 years old. He was taken way too soon, but not before making a positive impact on many people’s lives. Scrolling through the internet, it was not difficult to find former teammates and loved ones who spoke highly of the man. Ellis left an indelible mark, and his achievements as a Buckeye should not be forgotten.