ST. PETERSBURG — Jocqui Ellison was well on his way.
After an impressive stint as a freshman on Lakewood's junior varsity, he was called up midway through the 2010 season. A speedy wide receiver who could play quarterback, Ellison had potential to be the next big thing at a school that has produced plenty of big-time skill position players.
But when the 2011 season started, Ellison was in the bleachers. He couldn't practice. He couldn't run through the tunnel before games. His sophomore season was wiped out by academic ineligibility.
"I wasn't working hard enough," Ellison said. "After my ninth-grade year I kind of put school off to the side and started working on football more. Then when I tried to catch up with my schoolwork, it was too late."
Watching his teammates play without him was difficult. He was supposed to be out there catching touchdown passes, not sitting in the stands socializing with classmates.
So Ellison went to work on his grade point average. By the end of his sophomore year he was caught up and vowed to never get behind academically again.
"That was a message for me," said Ellison, now a 6-foot, 170-pound senior sporting a GPA around 2.7. "It was really hard for me to see my teammates working and playing and having fun and I'm sitting there suffering.
"It woke me up. It was kind of good in a way because I got my grades up. I've gotten past it."
Once cleared, Ellison set his sights on doing everything he could to help his team win. Last season, that meant playing wide receiver, running back and quarterback. He was pivotal to the Spartans' offense — not only as a go-to receiver for quarterback Tracy Johnson, but as Johnson's backup when he was injured.
This season, Ellison was penciled in as starting quarterback. Johnson graduated, and Northeast transfer Tyrell Hubbard-Smith, the starting quarterback in the spring, was set to play cornerback. But when Ryan Davis transferred from Northeast a few weeks before the season opener, Ellison thought he was off the hook.
"I didn't want to play quarterback, but in a way I did," he said. "I was willing to help out my team. I had to suck it up and be the quarterback. When Ryan came I got moved back to slot. That is more satisfying to me."
In his first two games with Davis at quarterback, the duo hooked up for a touchdown in each. After beating St. Petersburg handily, the offense struggled against Gibbs last week and Ellison was asked to play quarterback in the second half.
The Spartans rallied to beat Gibbs, and Ellison completed 5 of 7 passes for 58 yards. His role from here on out will be offensive spark plug.
"One thing that makes Joc unique is that he has been in the system for four years," coach Cory Moore said. "Ryan is unbelievably athletic, but he hasn't been in the system as long as Joc. And I look at it this way: what would a defensive coordinator not like to deal with? I think it's not knowing who is going to be at quarterback. It'll make it tougher to prepare for."
Moore said he hasn't given up on Davis, who will play against Largo tonight. But if he feels the offense is sputtering, he won't hesitate to move Ellison behind center.
"In a perfect world, they will both play well," Moore said. "But if we need Joc, we'll get him in there.
"Joc has that it factor. He's deceivingly fast. His athleticism allows him to adjust to any type of ball. He has good hand-eye coordination. He can jump. He's a next level guy."
Ellison's college plans are still up in the air, but he said he will play in college.
"That was my main focus when I first got here," he said. "I learned that I needed to get my grades. I want to keep playing at the next level."
Players like Ellison tend to shine in big games. Tonight's game against Largo (3-1) would qualify, even if the teams haven't played each other since 2008. While the Spartans have sputtered their way to a 3-1 record, Ellison is confident his team will put it together against the Packers.
"Largo hasn't played anybody," Ellison said. "They'll see this week what they need to work on. When they played East Lake they got beat by one person (Artavis Scott). We've got more than one person."
Rodney Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RodneyHomeTeam.