Iowa State linebacker Jacob Ellis learned how to excel from his dad, Jeff, a former Ohio State star

Iowa State linebacker Jacob Ellis tries to complete a tackle during Saturday’s 20-13 loss to Iowa at Jack Trice Stadium. The redshirt sophomore from Roseville, Calif. had five tackles in his first career start. Photo courtesy Iowa State Athletics Communications.  

AMES — When Jeff Ellis summoned his son, Jacob, for grueling conditioning work, no complaints cropped up.

 Jacob — now a key rotational player at linebacker for Iowa State — eagerly dug into each task, straining to improve, and draining his energy reserves in the process at the nearby high school in Roseville, Calif.

 “I always looked up to him,” said Jacob Ellis, who hopes to help the Cyclones earn a win in Saturday’s 11 a.m. (ESPNU) nonconference finale at Ohio. “I always admired how he carried himself and I just wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps.”

 Jeff Ellis became a star tight end at Ohio State in the late 1980s, but injuries derailed his promising career. He passed away in 2018 after a battle with cancer and Jacob honors his memory by priming himself for every opportunity — taking nothing for granted while overcoming injuries of his own.

 “He meant everything to me,” the 6-2, 225-pound redshirt sophomore said. “He was my trainer, my mentor, everything I could ask for.”

 Now Jacob’s doing everything asked of him as a Cyclone. He notched five tackles in his first start Saturday against Iowa after replacing injured senior Gerry Vaughn in the lineup. He was expected to play a major role in ISU’s defense last season, too, but a lower-body injury early in the season forced him to don the redshirt.

 “It felt nice to get back in the swing of things,” Ellis said.

 Vaughn practiced Tuesday, so Ellis could slide back into a backup role, but that doesn’t mean he’ll take a back seat to anyone in a deep, yet largely inexperienced linebacker room. He’s shown that he can be consistently productive when taking on a high snap count and will be put in plenty of other pressure-packed situations as the season grinds on.

 “I thought (he) was a critical loss to us a year ago to be honest,” said Cyclone head coach Matt Campbell, who seeks to enter conference play at 2-1 for the fifth time in his seven-plus season tenure. “For that guy to get in and get the opportunity to play, and play the way he did on Saturday, was huge for our team. It was huge for our program. It was terrible for Gerry because nobody wanted to be on the field more than (him), and that was a loss, but the way Jacob played; Jacob’s one of those guys that came into our program and when he got here (last) spring, we knew this guy was gonna have a chance to be really special and really help our team in a multitude of different ways.”

 Case in point, last Saturday: Ellis’s biggest tackle came late in Saturday’s 20-13 loss to the Hawkeyes. He and cornerback Myles Purchase teamed to thwart Iowa’s third and one run late in the game to force a punt and give his team an ultimately unredeemed chance to drive for a game-tying touchdown.

“I give Jacob a lot of credit, but he’s the same guy every day since he’s been here,” ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “Talk about competitive spirit, he has it.”

 Ellis’s grandfather, Jimmy, was the WBA world heavyweight boxing champion from 1968-70 and served as a sparring partner with Muhammed Ali. He passed his “competitive spirit” onto Jeff Ellis, who in turn transferred it to his grateful son, Jacob.

 “The kind of kid he is, what he stands for, what he’s about — I think for our team going forward, continuing to find depth and find guys that will stand up and make big plays, it’s really exciting,” Campbell said. “He certainly did that and earned a lot of trust from our staff and certainly his teammates on Saturday.”