Phillip Ely still watches Alabama games from his home in Toledo, Ohio.
The former Crimson Tide quarterback doesn’t tune in to wonder “what if?” — he’s simply trying to keep tabs on an old roommate: Alabama center Ryan Kelly.
Ely thinks the Tide will beat up on Arkansas this Saturday night, but he’s much more concerned about Toledo’s game against Kent State. Two years after transferring out of Tuscaloosa, the fifth-year senior has the No. 24 Rockets off to a 4-0 start this season.
“It’s really a blessing to be back out here and playing,” Ely says after a Wednesday night practice in northwest Ohio. “It’s something that was taken away from me last year.”
Did you hear about last year?
Ely had finally taken the field as a starting quarterback, three years after ‘Bama recruited him out of Tampa, Fla.
In Week 2, the Rockets welcomed No. 24 Missouri to The Glass Bowl. Ely suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder early, but played through it.
After he popped his shoulder back in, Ely’s knee twisted awkwardly on a scramble. There was no hiding the second injury. He tried to stay in, but collapsed on the next play. The damage: A torn ACL.
Ely’s college career could have ended that day. Backup quarterback Logan Woodside won eight games in his absence and nearly led Toledo to the MAC Championship Game.
This year, the two quarterbacks battled during spring and summer workouts before Ely won his starting job back in fall camp.
“I had to bring it every day, because he did,” Ely says. “There were no days off. I wouldn’t be here, really, without him.”
He also would not be here if things hadn’t gone south in Alabama.
"Nothing was going to be given to me," Ely says. "I had to compete right off the bat. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted a chance to compete. And that’s all I was looking for."
Ely was the Tide’s only quarterback recruit in the 2011 class, but found himself struggling to solidify a backup role in 2012. The levee finally broke after Alabama added three early-enrollee quarterbacks before spring practice in 2013.
“I talked with the coaches and knew that I was going to have to find another opportunity elsewhere,” Ely said. “I don’t regret ever going there. I learned a lot from those coaches. The whole process was real smooth and they were really helpful in the whole deal. Just had to find a different opportunity.”
That opportunity waited at Toledo, which had recruited Ely early in his high school career.
“Nothing was going to be given to me,” Ely says. “I had to compete right off the bat. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted a chance to compete. And that’s all I was looking for.”
Now, things are finally running smoothly.
The 6-foot-1 signal-caller helped Toledo upset Arkansas on Sept. 12, and then led the Rockets to an overtime win against Iowa State the following week. Blowouts of Arkansas State and Ball State followed.
Ely attributes some of that success to Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama.
“I definitely am a stronger person because of it,” he said of his time in Tuscaloosa. “I learned how to compete. I learned how to prepare for games. I was part of an elite program there at Alabama, and that’s what we’re looking to do here at Toledo.”
He admits he was somewhat naive during the recruiting process, but has long since accepted what happened at ‘Bama.
“It’s tough for quarterbacks to find a spot, and find a home,” Ely says. “Because they don’t know how it’s going to pan out.”
He added: “There’s only one guy pulling the trigger.”
Finally, that guy is him.
More from Phillip Ely:
On Alabama’s matchup with Arkansas: “I remember it was a really close game last year for them. I’m sure this is a game where Alabama is definitely — after the loss to Ole Miss — looking to get back on top. And I think this will be a good game for them. It’s a game that was close last year, and I’m sure they want to take care of business this year.”
On the beginning of the end at ‘Bama: “My redshirt freshman year, splitting backup reps with Blake Sims — It was really hard to see how the future was going to pan out, and kind of going into the spring. I think they had three early-enrollee quarterbacks, so obviously they wanted to find a guy. And they wanted to bring in some more guys to make sure they made the right decision.”
On choosing Toledo: “Well, I didn’t know too much about it. I wanted to tell myself, ‘Go take a visit, and go look at the school and see for yourself.’ So I can make all these speculations I want down in Florida, but going to a place that I didn’t know too much about, I wanted to take a visit and kind of see for myself. Coming up here, meeting the coaches, getting to know them… and just kind of getting with those guys and sitting down with them and getting to know their vision for the team and what the situation was, it was kind of perfect for me.”
On MACtion: “Man, I tell you what. This conference is really special. They’ve got a lot of good teams. Each team is not going to be easy. That starts with Kent State this week. Talk about a team that fought through a lot of adversity this season. We’re both 1-0 going into the game (in the MAC), and both looking to advance. So it’s going to be a great challenge for us, and a great challenge for our team.”
The next level will not come down to you. You must ascend to it.
— Phillip Ely (@Phillip_Ely12) September 20, 2015