"When you come back your senior year and you're expecting to lead and things don't work out and another guy steps in, that can be hard to deal with," linebacker Rennie Curran said. "He just responded well. He came back, never complained, never showed a bad attitude."
Ellerbe began the year as a preseason All-SEC selection after leading the Bulldogs in tackles in 2007. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as the defensive leader of the top-ranked team in the country. His senior season began slowly, however, then came to a screeching halt in the first quarter of Georgia's loss to Alabama on Sept. 27.
A sprained medial collateral ligament sent Ellerbe to the locker room for the remainder of the game then kept him off the field for nearly a month after that. It was a devastating blow to a player who hoped to make the most of what little time he had left in his college career.
"It killed me because it's your senior season. It's over after this," Ellerbe said. "There isn't any way to turn back or waive a magic wand and start over from Alabama and avoid getting hurt. Sometimes life throws you some dice, and it's a matter of how they fall."
Success in the classroom didn't come easy for Ellerbe, and off-the-field problems plagued his early career at Georgia.
The low point came in 2006 when Ellerbe was arrested on DUI charges after he crashed a teammate's car into a tree. He was suspended for three games, an event that forced him to reconsider his priorities.
The problems were a spark that led to his breakout 2007 season, but they also served as a reminder that the injury that kept him on the sidelines for three games this year wasn't such a big deal.
"To get an injury like that can put you behind, it can depress you, it can be a rough time for you," linebackers coach John Jancek said. "I thought he did a good job, he rehabbed, he did all the extra things he needed to."
There wasn't any sulking for Ellerbe. He had just one class left to take this semester, so he spent nearly all his free time in the trainer's room getting treatment and rehabbing the knee. If he couldn't be working to help his team win games on the field, he wanted to show his teammates he was working just as hard to get healthy off it.
"He didn't say much," Curran said. "He just showed that he wanted to be out there, that he wanted to get his spot back, and that means more than anything – showing what you want by your actions."
The problem, however, was that Ellerbe's replacement, sophomore Darryl Gamble, was impressing people with his actions, too.
Gamble was a tackling machine in the three games Ellerbe missed, even tying an NCAA record by returning two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game against LSU.
By the time Ellerbe felt he was ready to get back into the lineup, many fans and pundits thought he had officially been passed on the depth chart by Gamble.
Ellerbe, however, never doubted he would regain his job. Middle linebacker at Georgia belonged to him. When Gamble was on the field, he was representing Ellerbe. When Ellerbe was ready to return, he wanted to earn the job back.
"In the back of everybody's mind, they know it's my position," Ellerbe said. "(Gamble) came out and played well, and I feel good that he played well because I coached him up. Every day in practice, he came to me asking, ‘What can I do better here?' And I felt if he played good that was a reflection of me."
Gamble said after each game, Ellerbe was the first to congratulate him.
On the bus ride to the airport following Gamble's standout performance against LSU, Ellerbe called to talk about the game. The senior joked sarcastically that he could have done even better, Gamble said, but it was clear Ellerbe was proud of his protégé's work.
"That's just the kind of guy he's grown to be," Curran said. "It's been up and down for him, not only this season, but his whole career. I think he's really grown up through all his good and bad experiences. He's really built his character."
For Ellerbe, who always knew he had the talent to succeed at Georgia, building that character was as much an accomplishment as anything he might have achieved on the football field this season.
"Dannell is graduating this semester, which is huge," head coach Mark Richt said. "When he first got here, he probably wasn't sure if he was going to make it, but he did, and I'm proud of him for that."
Richt said he makes a point of looking his leaders in the eyes during every game. It gives him a way to judge just how prepared they are for battle. From the preseason glory to the heartache of watching his team move on without him, Richt said Ellerbe's intensity has never wavered.
"I don't know if he's feeling it or not, but he hasn't said anything about it," Gamble said. "I don't think his mind is set like that. As long as the team is doing well out there, that's good for him."