When Justin Ellis went home to Monroe, La., after his first season with the Oakland Raiders, he treated his family to dinners out, trips to a local water park, back-to-school clothes and all the “simple stuff that was kind of hard growing up.”
He also ate. Which, if you’ve ever been to Louisiana, you know is culinary treat. After all, the unique foods are among the things (besides Spanish moss, bayous and stifling summer heat) that bind the state.
“I had etouffee, fried food, chicken sandwiches, whew,” said the Raiders’ second-year defensive tackle. “I missed that stuff so much. By the time I got back on my diet, it was tough.”
But not that tough. You see, Ellis, the Raiders’ fourth-round draft pick out of Louisiana Tech in 2014, has a goal.
“I want to make the Pro Bowl, that’s what I want to do,” he said. “I want to have people game-plan around me.”
That’s heady stuff just 18 months after being drafted — and out of a program in a non-power conference, no less. But the 6-foot-2, 334-pound Ellis has already accomplished what any rookie dreams of — he returned this season as a starter, after earning a spot at nose tackle by beating out ex-Raider Pat Sims for the starting position three games into the 2014 season.
He was selected to the all-rookie teams by Sports Illustrated and the Pro Football Writers Association.
Ellis finished his rookie season with 39 tackles and one pass breakup and was part of the Raiders defensive line that held Buffalo to 13 rushing yards on Dec. 21. He recorded a career-high four tackles in two games.
“Really, I did expect to start,” Ellis said. “But I knew it was going to be tough. Most rookies, you come in and do what they want you to do. I did that, and coach said, ‘I’m going to move you up to starter.’
“First off, I really wanted to prove to everybody that I could play at this level. I was coming from a small school like Louisiana Tech and there were a lot of guys coming from big-time schools … and I wanted to prove that football is football.”
Ellis did exactly that. The Raiders are thrilled with his growth and ability to compete at the highest level, but it is unusual for a fourth-round draft pick to fill a starting role as a rookie in the NFL.
“It kind of reminds me of Grady Jackson when Grady was here. You put him in the middle. We had a guy like Darrell Russell, who was an unbelievable player. You could put him in the middle. Those guys, when they wanted to go, man, it was special,” said veteran All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson. “So to be able to have Ellis and those guys in the front, we feel like you shouldn’t be able to run the ball on us.”
At Louisiana Tech, Ellis was a key player on the defensive line — but not since his senior year at Neville (Monroe, La.) High School was he selected first-team anything. A three-year starter for the Bulldogs, Ellis was a Conference USA honorable mention in 2013 and a Western Athletic Conference second-team selection as a sophomore in 2011. He recorded a career-high seven tackles twice in college.
“Justin is a uniquely talented football player who’s got great size, great strength and explosive power,” said former Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes, now the head coach at the University of California in Berkeley, just up the road from Oakland.
“He was a player that I still felt like had some potential that he didn’t reach in college. I felt like once he got into the NFL and had the training regimen, the diet and all the things that he’s going to have access to at the pro level that we didn’t necessarily have access to at Louisiana Tech, that he would take a bigger step forward as a player. I think he’s done that. … He’ll work hard and he’s certainly uniquely talented.”
Despite being somewhat overlooked, Ellis never doubted his own ability and since he’s joined the NFL, he’s redoubled his efforts — on the field and off.
“I feel like I just handled my business, I carried myself like a veteran, not just a rookie,” he said. “I made sure I didn’t use being a rookie as an excuse. Like I said, I worked hard and let them know I could do the work.”
The Raiders are coming off a 3-13, last-place finish in the AFC West, and the Denver Broncos appear to again be the team to beat. But new Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio has revamped the coaching staff, including adding defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., who has won four Super Bowls (three as a player, one as a coach) and defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, who may be best known as the man who molded Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila into the team’s all-time sacks leader.
The Raiders haven’t had a winning season since advancing to the Super Bowl after the 2002 season, though they did finish 8-8 in 2011 and 2012. But many prognosticators believe this season could be a turning point.
Either way, Ellis has his work cut out for him. And he’s not the only one who thinks he’s more than ready.
“I knew he would get a shot with an NFL team, and I felt like that if he did get an opportunity he would certainly make the most of it because he does love to play the game,” Dykes said. “He’ll play with passion, he’ll show up and work hard every day. At the defensive tackle position, somebody with his skill set that’s a hard worker and a team guy can carve out a great niche for himself.”