PULLMAN - If Hollywood ever produces football's answer to "The Natural" baseball movie, Alex Hoffman-Ellis deserves a starring role.
One year ago, Hoffman-Ellis led Washington State with 85 tackles. That’s a respectable total, but hardly amazing … except for a player with only two previous years of football experience.
Hoffman-Ellis never played youth football. Never played middle school football. Never played football of any kind until his senior year of high school, followed by one year in junior college.
Why? Simply put, Hoffman-Ellis was throwing his life away. Hoffman-Ellis said he “fell in with the wrong crowd” and was academically ineligible for high school sports until his senior year except for some non-varsity sports before he was kicked out of Santa Monica (Calif.) High during his junior year.
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Former NFL player Sam Rogers, the linebackers coach at Hamilton High in Los Angeles, took Hoffman-Ellis under his wing and helped a troubled teenager turn his life around.
“I’m not really comfortable talking about it,” the normally gregarious Hoffman-Ellis said. “I try to leave it completely in the past.
“I was getting in a lot of trouble. I’d sneak out of my house at night and do things I couldn’t even think about doing now. A couple close calls – like, really close – with the law.”
Despite poor grades, Hoffman-Ellis said he scored a solid 1,770 on his SAT. He likely would have drawn interest from plenty of four-year colleges, but he did not realize he was academically eligible for NCAA football until the summer after his one year at Moorpark College in suburban L.A.
Anyone who has seen Hoffman-Ellis run – he said he was hand-timed in a blistering 4.54 seconds for 40 yards on grass at Moorpark – can see why the Cougars jumped at the chance to land the linebacker. He redshirted his first year at WSU, and for good reason: He barely knew how to play the sport he had quickly grown to love.
“I knew absolutely nothing (about football in high school),” Hoffman-Ellis said with a smile. “I mean, I didn’t even know a tight end had to block most of the time.
“I was so (upset) when they threw me the ball so little at tight end.”
It was at linebacker that Hoffman-Ellis excelled. He started at middle linebacker (and tight end) in high school, started at outside ’backer in junior college, then started in the middle for WSU last year before seeing some action outside late in the season. He’s set to start at weak-side linebacker this season.
“I definitely like the move,” the redshirt junior said. “I love blitzing. I think playing out in space plays to my abilities a little better.“
Hoffman-Ellis took advantage of his newfound eligibility to compete in basketball, track and baseball as well as football his senior year at Hamilton (yes, it took some work to combine baseball and track in the spring). Basketball was his favorite sport until coaches talked him into playing football.
“I just thought football players were a bunch of meatheads,” he said with a laugh.
Hoffman-Ellis’ parents, Jeffrey Ellis and Shelley Hoffman (who have been married for 35 years), originally discouraged their son from playing football.
“My mom was afraid I‘d get hurt,” Hoffman-Ellis said with a sheepish grin.
At 6-foot-1 and 246 pounds, Hoffman-Ellis – who has big hair, big arms, big earring – looks more than capable of taking care of himself on the field. After going through some difficult times with their son, the parents have become the son’s biggest fans, on and off the field.
“He always had a good heart,” Jeffrey Ellis said. “He just lost his compass for a while.”
Injuries are mounting at WSU, but the only serious injury suffered in fall camp was Jordan Pu’u Robinson’s shredded right knee. The highly regarded backup defensive end, a redshirt freshman, will have season-ending surgery. … Sporting News magazine ranks WSU 102nd among 120 teams in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A). Oklahoma State, WSU’s host for a Sept. 4 season opener (FSN, 4 p.m.), is ranked 64th. The Cowboys are favored by 14 points against WSU. … Washington State’s home opener with Montana State on Sept. 11 is set for 4 p.m. TV plans are uncertain. The Cougars, who have struggled at the gate, will give away free tickets to the MSU game to all fans at the Arena Football League title game today in Spokane. Ex-WSU defensive back Alex Teems will play for Spokane against Tampa Bay. … Ellis, a longtime assistant director for television shows and movies, works on TV’s “Medium.”