Chris Carter told Jabari Ellis to carry a picture with him everywhere.
The picture was years old, one of Ellis as a freshman at Lake Marion High School where he played and Carter coached. He was holding a football, and his freshman year approach cost him a big opportunity as a senior.
“I know you want to kill that guy right now,” Carter recalled telling Ellis.
Were it not for the foundation of grades laid early in his high school ears, Ellis likely wouldn’t have spent Tuesday morning committing to the University of South Carolina’s football team. He might have already been a Gamecock, or likely a Miami Hurricane, a team that was on him heavily his senior season.
Instead, he went to junior college in 2016 before finally realizing a dream of playing Division I football.
“Going to junior college was rough,” Ellis said. “It was tough because you’ve got all your friends over there going D-I, Division I football. You’ve just really got to focus on you.”
Carter remembered at the time, it hurt Ellis. He’d built himself into a Shrine Bowl player, a big, quick pass rusher who was a bit raw as many high school players are.
One of the friends and teammates he watched move on was Emmanuel Walker, a defensive end who landed at Wake Forest. Ellis joined him at camps and unofficial campus visits and watched the process he went through.
“So many instances I can remember taking him on the trips with us when we were going to different schools,” Carter said. “It was just like, ‘Coach,’ he was saying. ‘I could have had all of this. I just messed it up.’ At that time, you feel for a kid. But at the same time, I told him, I said, ‘We all make our beds, we’ve got to lie in them. But you’ll get a second chance.’ ”
That second chance came with Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, Ga. Carter doesn’t like to direct players where to go, but he did feel the atmosphere at GMC would benefit Ellis, especially in terms of discipline.
Ellis took it as a chance to focus on himself. He said the football aspects take care of themselves and academics were the biggest key for him.
There was also a maturation aided by a world where a drill sergeant might demand one’s attention and “yes sirs” are expected.
“You’ve really just got to sit back, and it’s time for you to get right,” Ellis said. “You’re away from your family, and Georgia Military, I like to say, the JUCO process is hard, but Georgia Military is a different type of struggle.”
The 6-foot-2, 285-pounder said he’s become more of a technician on the football field in junior college after being more of a bully in high school. Playing at a higher level raised his game, especially as his high school coach remembered a player who took plays off and didn’t quite have that focus.
It’s part of an overall evolution Carter watched and expects to continue watching as Ellis moves into being a Gamecock.
That crystallized when coach and player were talking over the decision. At one point, Ellis stopped Carter mid-sentence to point out he won’t get another chance at this, a sign Ellis understood the gravity and seriousness of giving his word.
“He’s kind of evolved, going through the recruitment process,” Carter said. “He was like, ‘Once I make my decision, we’ve got a code here at Georgia Military that once I make my decision, I’ve got to stay with my decision.’ And that’s a different Jabari Ellis right there, and that’s a good thing.”
In his second and final season with the Bulldogs, Ellis said on the football side, he plans to focus on hitting the weight room and on his technique. He played a lot of defensive end at GMC, but South Carolina’s staff wants him at tackle and sees him adding 15 pounds of muscle.
The path Ellis took wasn’t an easy one, and it’s not one all players finish. But many that do come out better for it.
“A lot of guys go the junior college route,” Ellis said. “They lost faith, some of them not even playing football anymore. But I just kept faith, gave it to God. And now I’m reaping the benefits.”