Two Missouri State football captains sat together for a final round of questions prior to the start of what could be a season to remember. One arrived just a year ago and transformed the offense. The other has been a defensive staple since before the winning began.
Quarterback Jason Shelley and defensive end Kevin Ellis are team leaders and centerpieces for the No. 5-ranked Bears, who open the season Thursday night at Central Arkansas. Anticipation is sky high for the program, coming off back-to-back Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearances.
It wasn’t always that way, as Ellis can testify.
“It’s definitely changed, in a good way,” said Ellis, whose first season on campus was 2017. He spent it as a redshirt as Missouri State won three games. Things didn’t get much better with four wins in 2018 and just one in 2019.
Petrino’s hiring brings quick turnaround
Coach Bobby Petrino was hired in early 2020 and the quick turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Ellis was asked about the change in perception of the program, through players’ eyes, earlier this week.
“Back in the day, you’d go out with a Missouri State shirt on and nobody would really recognize you or pay you no mind,” Ellis said. “Now you walk out with a Missouri State shirt on and people want to stop you and talk to you and tell you they’ll be at the games. I feel that is a very positive thing.”
Ellis now begins his third season as a co-captain, an ultimate sign of respect from his teammates. He was a first-team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference defensive end last season when he ranked third in the league in sacks, fourth in fumble recoveries and fifth in tackles for lost yardage.
Ellis a ‘heart-and-soul’ piece of the defense
“Kevin is one of the heart-and-soul pieces of the defense,” Missouri State defensive coordinator Ryan Beard said. “He is a guy who doesn’t have to say many words. You walk around and you understand that he is extremely respected on our defense and our entire team.
STORY CONTINUES BELOW
Instant success in Bobby Petrino’s first two seasons raised expectations for MSU Bears football. Reality set in this fall with a 5-6 season where the most-glaring weakness was offensive live.
“He is a leader by his work ethic and he is a professional on and off the field. He is a good person, first and foremost. He treats people with respect. He is what our culture needs to be. He is a first-class person and a really, really good football player as well.”
The senior from Fort Worth, Texas, is viewed as a candidate to follow Eric Johnson as Missouri State’s next pro prospect. Johnson was drafted in the fifth round last spring by the Indianapolis Colts.
Personal awards and future opportunities are in the back of Ellis’ mind as the Bears set out to elevate the program even higher.
“Eric was a big key on defense and a great leader on our team,” Ellis said. “Playing next to him and working with him every day, we went through the same things. Knowing that it’s possible, knowing that it’s right there, is definitely motivation.”
Shelley a legitimate star at quarterback
As Ellis chases opposing quarterbacks, when the Bears have the ball all eyes will be on their legitimate star QB. Shelley is the first returning Missouri State player as MVFC Offensive Player of the Year since quarterback DeAndre Smith, regarded as the best player in school history, in 1990.
A preseason nominee for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the top offensive player in FCS, Shelley passed for a school-record 3,347 yards with 3,789 total offensive yards in 2021.
Making his contributions more remarkable a year ago, Shelley had little time to study the playbook or get to know his teammates after arriving on campus a few weeks prior to the season as a transfer from Utah State.
Asked to compare his comfort level now as opposed to a year ago, Shelley broke into a smile.
“I’m a lot more comfortable going into the season in general,” Shelley said. “Last year, I kind of got thrust into the fire and had to learn as I went.”
Petrino said Shelley’s grasp of the offense should make him an even better player — especially if he is able to walk the fine line of being creative with his talents without forcing plays that aren’t there.
A perfect fit for Petrino’s coaching style
While having a quarterback of Shelley’s experience and talents is comforting, Petrino’s coaching style always demands more from his top players and Shelley said he embraces the tough love from his head coach.
“It’s definitely an experience I don’t take for granted,” Shelley said of what it’s like playing for Petrino, who is recognized as one of college football’s greatest offensive minds. “He’s a smart man who has done great things in college football.
“He always pushes me. That’s something I’ve always admired about his coaching style. I appreciate that he pushes me to be the best I can be, to be perfect every rep. Even when I throw a good ball, there’s always something that can be better, there’s always something that can be improved on.”
Petrino said one of the things he’s noticed about Shelley this preseason is the self-assuredness to coach up teammates on the field.
“A lot of times in practice, when receivers will make an error, it’s been fun to watch him be in position to correct them, help them or teach them,” Petrino said. “That’s when a quarterback has taken the next step forward, when he can communicate with the players during practice on what needs to be corrected.
“That has to happen during the game. He’s got to be able to handle it out on the field. I’ve enjoyed watching his maturity and his ability to do that in practice.”
Fan support motivates Bears
It all begins Thursday night and where the road leads, it’s a good bet that Shelley and Ellis will play guiding roles. For Ellis, the expectations of success are a welcomed change from those days early in his college career.
There is some pressure to produce. Those fans who have jumped on the bandwagon — or the ability to add more to the hype train if the wins accumulate — is a good kind of pressure to have.
“Having the fans behind us definitely will push us more,” Ellis said. “It pushes us and motivates us to be better.”
Missouri State at Central Arkansas
The season-opening game in Conway, Arkansas, kicks off at 7 p.m. Thursday. Hear the game on KWTO, 101.3 FM, or watch the streaming telecast on ESPN+.
UCA leads the series 6-5. The teams met twice in the fall of 2020 with UCA winning both. Missouri State prevailed 43-34 at Plaster Stadium last September, a game in which the teams combined for five touchdowns in the final three minutes.
Jason Shelley threw for 231 in his first home start for Missouri State and engineered a go-ahead touchdown drive in the final minute. The Bears tacked on a defensive touchdown as time expired.
Missouri State plays its home opener at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8 at Plaster Stadium, facing Tennessee-Martin. It’s a rematch of the FCS playoff game at Plaster last November in which UTM won 33-32.