The first question on everyone's mind when they meet Dan Ellis is the same: What if he can't perform as a Division I-A starting quarterback when Virginia opens its season Sept. 4 at North Carolina?
It's usually followed with a worst-case scenario. What if he throws an interception that game, or that first series? Ellis usually gives the same, we'll-just-have-to-wait-and-see answer, but he seems to be getting tired of it. He's got a question of his own now.
"What are you going to think if I drop 300 [passing yards] on Carolina?" Ellis said recently. "It's all relative. I don't let stuff like that go to my head. I could very easily throw for 300 against Carolina and then throw five interceptions against Clemson. . . . If I throw an interception the first play of the [North Carolina] game, then I have to come back the second series. I still have to play three and a half more quarters."
Ellis, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior from the Philadelphia suburb of Downingtown, Pa., takes over from two-year starter Aaron Brooks, who graduated last May and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers. Ellis occasionally replaced Brooks during his first two years, including a surprisingly effective debut as a freshman against Florida State in 1997 when he completed 8 of 15 passes for 122 yards. He has played in nine games, and rarely thrown more than a handful of passes.
Brooks, who was very mobile with a strong arm, was known for big plays and, sometimes, poor decision making. No one is bubbling over Ellis's 40-yard-dash times or his right arm. His coaches laud his intelligence and leadership, but even those compliments are followed by cautions about his inexperience.
"He's very bright; when he picks it up, I think he understands it," offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill said. But "there are situations that come up on September 4 that you've tried to cover or maybe didn't cover, then he has to be a player. He has to make the adjustments during the game that you couldn't prepare for."
His inexperience is one factor influencing Tranquill's system. With all-ACC tailback Thomas Jones and a talented offensive line returning, the traditional running game of Coach George Welsh should flourish. But Welsh said Ellis still will have to win games for the Cavaliers, just by virtue of his position.
"I'd rather win games on defense than offense," Welsh said. "I've won it with a pretty good defense and a strong running game. That's not enough these days. You've got to be able to throw it, too. . . . Maybe we do this year, you never know, but we try not to have to win a game with a quarterback. We give them some help, have a good running game, play good defense."
It is unlikely the coaching staff is going to emphasize the passing game as much with Ellis as they did with Brooks. On-field comparisons between Ellis and Brooks offer a stark contrast. Welsh likened Ellis favorably to Mike Groh, who started in 1994 and '95 and had the school's career rushing leader, Tiki Barber, to hand off to.
Ellis cannot regularly change broken plays into long scrambles, or toss the ball downfield off-balance. Tranquill has called him accurate, with average arm strength. Ellis's understanding and feel for the game will become critical as teams load their defenses at the line of scrimmage to control Jones.
"One of the things I don't know is what I think he can do best," Tranquill said. "You have to whittle down and play to his strengths. He's not going to be able to do some of the things Aaron Brooks did, or some of the things way back that [former Cavaliers standout] Shawn Moore did. Things those guys did very well might not suit him. So you don't try to pound a round peg into a square hole, so you play to his strengths. I'm going to have to learn more about him through this preseason, and it's going to take some time during games to really get a feel for what he does best and what he likes."
Off the field, the differences between Brooks and Ellis are just as striking. Brooks constantly compared himself to the conference's other quarterbacks, searching for the respect that he said he never received from writers or fans, ultimately culminating in a gag order following comments about Wake Forest quarterback Brian Kuklick prior to the Cavaliers' game with the Deacons Oct. 31. But Ellis, however vocal and confident in the locker room, refused to stake an early claim for his place among the conference's quarterbacks when asked how he stacked up.
"I'm not going to answer that question," Ellis said. "I'm not a question mark for myself. I'm confident in my abilities. That's for you to compare. But I'm not going to say I'm better than this person or that person."
As a base of comparison, Ellis has about as good credentials as someone who's only thrown 33 passes in two years can have. His performance against the Seminoles his freshman year caused a small quarterback controversy at the following weekly news conference. He has performed capably in his other brief appearances, and has a stellar high school resume. He led Exton High School to the Pennsylvania AAAA championship his senior year, and earned several prep all-American and Philadelphia area player of the year awards. He completed 15 of 18 passes in the spring game, good for 145 yards.
"He's always had poise and he's always learned quickly," Welsh said. "It's just a question of execution with him, and decision-making. His decision-making has always been good. He doesn't waste any time to decide what he wants to do."
His teammates see the same things. The wide receiver corps has begun to jell around Ellis after almost daily light workouts during the summer. There is no true No. 1 receiver, though junior Kevin Coffey is the most likely candidate. Coffey averaged 25.4 yards per catch last season, but only caught 23 passes and does not possess breakaway speed. Junior Ahmad Hawkins, junior Demetrius Dotson and redshirt freshman Tavon Mason have the speed, but have not emerged as major threats.
"We've ironed out some of the wrinkles we had," Coffey said. "The more you work with [Ellis], the more comfortable you get. I don't think he is a question mark. He has the talent and the accuracy. His head is strong, and that is what we need with our quarterback. Dan will place the ball wherever we need it."