To help college football fans get through the dog days of summer before conference media days launch the preseason festivities in mid-July, The Post and Courier is counting down the 12 most important South Carolina Gamecocks and 12 most important Clemson Tigers for 2013. The series continues Tuesday with No. 5 for each team and will conclude with the No. 1 players on July 7.
USC NO. 5 — BRUCE ELLINGTON, JUNIOR, WIDE RECEIVER
It seems like so long ago that he was feeling his way — sometimes clumsily — through a new position. Bruce Ellington was always an excellent athlete, but had never seriously played receiver until two seasons ago after he took the 2010 season off from football while focusing on basketball.
Now, he is entering his third and final school year as a two-sport athlete, though he will have a year of football eligibility left after the 2013 season ends. He has proved himself a capable college receiver. He had 40 catches for 600 yards and seven touchdowns last season, after having 17 for 211 and one in 2011.
After 2011, USC lost leading receiver Alshon Jeffery to early NFL draft entry. Ellington and Ace Sanders filled the void last season. With Sanders now off early to the NFL, Ellington will take on an even greater role in 2013, though he had a pretty significant one last season. He ranked second on the team in catches (five behind Sanders) and was first in yards, ahead of Sanders’ 531. Sanders led USC with nine touchdown catches, and Ellington was second.
Ellington capped his 2012 season by catching a 32-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in the Outback Bowl, boosting USC to a win over Michigan. How will he follow that in 2013?
Remember, too, that Ellington is a dangerous kickoff returner. He had 20 for 463 yards in 2011 and 18 for 406 in 2012. He is still seeking his first career kickoff return touchdown.
CLEMSON NO. 5 — JOSH WATSON, JUNIOR, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Clemson’s below-average rush defense has already been discussed in the Grady Jarrett entry. As a reminder: 156 yards on the ground per game, which is 56th nationally and eighth in the ACC. That was actually an improvement upon the previous year: Clemson was 10th in the ACC in 2011 (177 yards a clip). It’s not an unsalvageable situation, but guys like Josh Watson have to make the leap from good to … well, better. Even if he’s not a Nagurski winner, Watson’s the guy with the expectations.
Watson’s production isn’t necessarily quantifiable. The 2012 numbers say 54 tackles, 3½ for a loss, 12 quarterback pressures and so on and so forth. He’s got a defensive end’s mindset, but he’s asked to play in the trenches alongside the nose guard Jarrett. The best defensive tackle sets are the ones who aren’t necessarily hearing their names yelped by play-by-play announcers; they’re the ones quietly pushing back the line of scrimmage and tearing apart the opposing quarterback’s rhythm, keeping running backs bottled up and ultimately allowing the back seven to make plays if the rush ends aren’t being dominant. Certainly, Clemson can (and will) win a shootout here and there. But depending on that method every single week gets you 9-3, not 11-1 or beyond.