All Ellis was expected to do was produce a national championship. By that lofty measure he has been a disappointment. In his first two seasons as the Gamecocks' quarterback (after a redshirt year), South Carolina was an ordinary 11-10-2. This season started well. The Gamecocks were picked to finish in the Top 20 by nearly every major poll and won their first six games, including a resounding 23-10 victory over Georgia. But reality set in hard when South Carolina was shut out first by Georgia Tech, which hadn't beaten a Division I-A team since November 1986, and two weeks later by Florida State, which trashed the Gamecocks 59-0.
South Carolina had fallen apart as a team, but Ellis was forced to bear much of the blame—mainly because he threw too many interceptions. In his three seasons Ellis has completed 39 touchdown passes to go with an appalling 64 interceptions. During one stretch this fall he was picked off 12 times in three games, including five against Virginia Tech. Says Ellis, "I was throwing when I wasn't ready." Coach Joe Morrison is more blunt: "He has made some dumb-ass throws." Worse, says Morrison, when Ellis is feeling pressured, he tips off the defense by patting the ball immediately before he throws it.
The roots of Ellis's failures are complex and not entirely of his own making. First, this year Morrison changed from a run-and-shoot offense to a multiple offense. The new scheme gave Ellis more time to throw, but that advantage was offset by the inexperience of his receivers. Second, Ellis has difficulty controlling his combative disposition; he tries to get even after, say, an interception, and that leads him to throw into the teeth of the defense. Third, Ellis is impatient, as even he admits. He says, "I don't want to rely on the defense to give me another chance. I want to score now." Which means taking foolish chances instead of waiting for the perfect opportunity to go long. Fourth, the Gamecocks have shortcomings on the offensive line.
Still, with one more year of eligibility left, the 6'3", 203-pound Ellis may break former San Diego State quarterback Todd Santos's college career record of 11,425 passing yards. So he must be doing something right. South Carolina's offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, Al Groh, says Ellis's strength "is his ability to get into the flow and be an integral part of the offense, not an independent entity. He sees the picture, and the great ones understand in pictures rather than words."
And for all the hype surrounding him, Ellis has a clear sense of his quarter-backing ability: "My style is what people want for a college quarterback. I'm coachable, I work hard every day, I do the right thing on the field, and occasionally I'll make a big play they didn't ask for. I'd say I'm at least the equal of any other quarterback in the country, but I don't overestimate my athletic ability. I think of myself more as an impact player than as a star."
"He's a better person than he is a football player, and he's one of the best football players I've ever seen," says South Carolina assistant coach Jim Washburn. Certainly Ellis has brought class, if not a national title, to the Gamecock program. Reflecting on his college career, Ellis says, "It's been a roller coaster."
Aaron Emanuel was the most heavily recruited football player in the high school class of '85. After rushing for 4,807 yards and 54 touchdowns at Quartz Hill High in Palmdale, Calif., the 6'2", 225-pound Emanuel was courted by more than 100 colleges, some of which indulged in unseemly begging. No institution debased itself more than Nebraska, which sent a chauffeur-driven white Cadillac to Emanuel's home to whisk him off on his official recruiting visit to Lincoln. The limo carried him to a nearby airport, where he boarded a private jet with Cornhusker coach Tom Osborne at his elbow. After arriving in Nebraska, Emanuel dined with Bob Kerrey, then the state's governor, and Kerrey's girlfriend at the time, actress Debra Winger. "I didn't say anything," says Emanuel. "What was a 17-year-old football player supposed to say?"
Emanuel's first love was always Southern Cal, and that's where he decided to enroll. The only question was whether, as the latest in the long line of superstar USC tailbacks, he would win one or two Heismans. Perhaps he would be the first player ever to get three. This didn't seem so preposterous in the spring of 1985. At the very least, Emanuel would be the equal of former Trojans, and Heisman winners, O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen.
A couple of weeks ago Emanuel was relaxing in the sun outside Heritage Hall on the USC campus. "There's no better teacher than experience," Emanuel said. "It's not what happens, but what you do with what happens."
What has happened to Emanuel at Southern California is the pits. "It's been a nightmare," he said. That's being charitable. The jury is still out on what will ultimately happen to Emanuel, but he said, "I give 100 percent and let God take up the slack."