CLEMSON -- C.J. Spiller phoned Andre Ellington after the Berkeley High product's 140-yard performance against Auburn, congratulating the sophomore on a job well done.
Well done indeed, as Ellington's first 17 games at Clemson were better than Spiller's own spectacular start -- if judging performance by yards per carry.
While Ellington does not have the speed or versatility of Spiller, the Moncks Corner native has perhaps better natural running instincts as he is averaging 7.4 yards per attempt this season, two tenths of a yard above his freshman average.
Spiller averaged 6.5 yards per carry through his first 17 games and only once finished with a yards-per-carry average above six in a season. Ellington is also averaging two and a half more yards per attempt during his short time at Clemson than the career mark of his timeshare co-pilot Jamie Harper (4.9 avg.).
Does Ellington's hot start and instinctive running style mean a feature back will emerge from the timeshare? Not likely, says Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier.
"We're trying to play those guys an equal number of snaps because of the cumulative effect of the season, I think you've got to do that," Napier said. "We don't want to leave the park one day and one guy is more beat up than the other. You've got to have two. We'd like to have a third back so you wouldn't have to play those guys 40, 44 plays."
Napier also shot down the idea of extensive specialization of labor in the backfield, though Ellington and Harper each bring different assets to the field.
"There may be a play or two that we feel like this guy (is better suited for)," Napier said. "We subbed Jamie for the (touchdown) he caught. Ellington was in the game and we put Jamie because of his ability to track the ball down the field."
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney also said the running back position will remain shared. Ellington has carried the ball 39 times this season, Harper 31.
Still, Swinney raved about how Ellington was the most decisive runner on the team last season when Spiller was still around.
Spiller is second in Clemson history in yards per rush -- 5.85 -- with a minimum of 1,000 yards, and Ellington could soon pass Spiller on that list. Jackie Calvert, who played in the late 1940s, holds the school record (5.92).
"We are going to use both of (Ellington and Harper) consistently, it's kind of what we have to do," Swinney said. "Between the two of them one of them is going to be hot. I thought they both played outstanding. Jamie Harper was player of the game against (North Texas). I thought Andre Ellington took the game over in the fourth quarter.
"It's just a really good combination, they are really low maintenance."
The question that comes with Ellington's 5-9, 190-pound frame is durability. Can he hold up over the course of 200 carries?
Discarding the Presbyterian game from the equation, Ellington is on pace to rush for 1,530 yards this season on 207 carries. The yardage would be a Clemson single-season record.
And if Ellington sustains his yards per carry, it would match Billy Hair for the school record (min. 50 attempts), Hair who only had 71 attempts in 1950.
Ellington held up well receiving 26 touches on Saturday.
"After the game I was pretty banged up," Ellington said Tuesday, "but I'm pretty good right now."
Whether he can handle a 25-touch work load over the course of the season is yet to be determined.
"We've all felt he has been capable of that since he's been here," Napier said. "And he's a lot denser than people think. I think he has the mental toughness to be that for a season.
"You'd like to have another guy out there but you don't so we'll just keep firing away and hopefully they'll stay healthy."
Ellington said he and Harper typically determine which of them will be on the field. Napier said they do not "tag" backs for specific formations. Ellington said Harper told him "to just keep going" and stay on the field in the fourth quarter and overtime at Auburn.
Ellington responded by spear-heading a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.
"He can do that every week, no doubt," Napier said of the performance. "Andre is a great zone runner. He's got great acceleration, makes full-speed decisions. He's a special talent."
Ellington might be special, he might become a feature back someday, but like Spiller, he'll have to wait.
--Swinney told reporters after practice Wednesday that wide receiver Brandon Ford will be converted to tight end. Clemson was searching for tight end depth behind Dwayne Allen.
Check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).