Bryan Ellis didn’t get much sleep last season. He’s expecting even less in the coming months.
But that, he said, just goes with the territory.
Following USC’s 11-3 season and the departure of Tyson Helton, USC coach Clay Helton promoted Ellis from offensive quality control assistant to quarterbacks coach.
This spring, Ellis must develop a replacement for star quarterback Sam Darnold, a two-year starter who led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory and a Pac-12 Conference title, and is projected as a top-five pick in the NFL draft this month.
As he dissects video of spring workouts and instructs quarterbacks during practice, Ellis also must stay alert for a phone call: At any minute, his wife, Janie, is expected to go into labor with the couple’s first child.
“It’s a hectic time,” the 29-year-old Ellis said.
He is navigating his first spring as a quarterbacks coach in a position group that isn’t returning a starter.
Third-year sophomore Matt Fink has played mop-up duty in three games, and Jack Sears redshirted last season.
Helton said at the outset of spring practice that the quarterbacks competition would continue into the fall. That’s when another youngster, J.T. Daniels, will join Ellis’ group. Daniels led Mater Dei High to a 15-0 season as a junior and is graduating high school a year early to enroll at USC this fall.
Despite Ellis’ lack of experience, Helton said he was confident in his ability to develop a first-year starter after observing him last season.
“There was no question in my mind,” Helton said. “His mind and his creativity, he’s a guy that has your back.”
Ellis appears understated when he stands near the quarterbacks during practices. He routinely wears a white ball cap, cardinal sweatshirt and black jogger sweatpants and looks more like a tennis coach than quarterbacks guru.
But during a recent scrimmage, his voice echoed across the field as he barked at players.
“He likes to get on you,” Sears said. “But it comes from a loving place.”
Said Fink: “If I mess up, then he’s going to be in my face, obviously, because we don’t want to have that play over again.”
Ellis hollered to line up faster during a recent scrimmage, then watched as Fink and Sears each fumbled a snap.
Afterward, he said both quarterbacks were overloaded by details and forgot simple tasks.
“We’re trying to get better at little things every day,” Ellis said. “So that part of coaching them, where it’s actually on my shoulders, where I have to decide what we’re good at, what we’re not good at and what we need to work on that day — that part is new for me.”
But Ellis is familiar with a quarterbacks room.
He played the position at the University of Alabama Birmingham under head coach Neil Callaway, who is now USC's offensive line coach.
Ellis became a quality control assistant at Western Kentucky, before he was promoted to running backs coach, then named receivers coach. Ellis was the Hilltoppers’ passing game coordinator in 2016 and, after a coaching change, called plays in a 51-31 victory over Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl — before Helton hired him at USC.
Last season, he stood at the elbow of Tyson Helton, assisting with quarterbacks, and took over coaching duties when Tyson Helton left for Tennessee and the Trojans prepared to face Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, which they lost 24-7.
“Being coached by someone who has played in the system and has made the mistakes that you’ve made and has had success, you automatically establish credibility with him,” Sears said. “He’s seeing the same stuff that you’re seeing, except he’s been through it.”
Ellis didn’t hesitate to say why he was promoted.
“Worked my ass off,” he said. “Here from five in the morning to spending the night during the season. … Doing the littlest thing from getting somebody coffee to deciding what third down plays we’re going to run.”
Clay Helton recalled when he received his first full-time coaching gig — he was 23 when he was named the running backs coach at Duke — before giving the youthful Ellis a vote of confidence.
“Being young doesn’t mean you’re not good,” Helton said. “He is a brilliant coach who I think is going to be a star.”
USC’s season could hinge on how the quarterbacks perform.
None are expected to have an immediate impact like Darnold, who passed for 4,143 yards and 26 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions, as a third-year sophomore.
But when the Trojans open against Nevada Las Vegas at the Coliseum on Sept. 1, one quarterback must be ready to command an offense.
“It takes work and it takes coming out here and honing your skills,” Ellis said. “Go be Matt Fink and you go be Jack Sears and we’ll tailor what we do offensively and get the best out of them.”
As for Ellis, he said he’s ready for more late nights and early mornings if it means success on the field and as a new dad.