A return to the gridiron: Bruce Ellington, the leading scorer on USC's basketball team, begins his transition to playing college football
COLUMBIA -- The two sports are different, but they're both sports. And that makes them the same.
Football and basketball. They're just games, right?
That's the seemingly simple explanation coming from South Carolina sophomore Bruce Ellington, the basketball team's leading scorer a year ago -- and the football team's new speedy receiver.
"I've done this pretty much all my life, since I was young," the Moncks Corner native said of splitting time between football and hoops.
"I think I can do it. I'm going to go into it not shaking my head, saying, 'I can't do it.' I'm going to believe I can do this."
The reality, of course, is that every high school football player has to make the defined transition, often an against-the-current battle, to the college game. And those guys, struggle as they might, aren't dividing their time with another sport.
Ellington's position coach, Steve Spurrier Jr. -- who has developed some of the school's top receivers, current standout Alshon Jeffery, Kenny McKinley and Sidney Rice -- knows the learning curve is undeniable. It's just part of this deal.
"He just needs to learn, learn football. It's different. It's a different game," Spurrier Jr. said. "He's used to five-on-five. He's not used to a guy being allowed to hit you anywhere on the field that he wants. If you're jogging around the field, they're allowed to knock you out anywhere -- anywhere.
"They used to more than they do now, but you've got to get used to anybody being able to hit you anywhere. There's 11 guys on defense, and you need to know where all of them are."
Contact. It exists in basketball, but clearly not like this. There's no such thing as a handcheck or a charge on a football field. You almost have to commit a crime to receive an unnecessary roughness call.
Veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore had jokingly warned Ellington all summer that he was "coming for him" once camp opened. Ellington somehow forgot those tongue-in-cheek threats -- until Gilmore decleated Ellington late in the first practice Wednesday, bumping him at the line of scrimmage.
"He wasn't expecting it," Spurrier Jr. said. "I thought it was great."
Today is the team's first day in full pads. So other, bigger hits are surely on the way. Physical safety D.J. Swearinger is promising to properly welcome Ellington to college football.
"I'm ready for it to happen," said Ellington, who could ask his cousin, Clemson running back Andre Ellington, for tips on taking and avoiding contact. "When it happens, it happens. I just know I didn't get hit too much in high school."
Ellington admits he was "off" when camp started, but each day seems to provide more confidence for the 5-9, 197-pound dart.
Spurrier Jr. said Ellington will play this fall. He marvels at Ellington's pure athletic ability. He said he catches the ball better than he thought he would, too, considering he wasn't exclusively a receiver at Berkeley. He led the Stags to a state title as a run-first type quarterback. But, when you think about it, the style of play is really no different for Ellington once he gets the ball in his hands: Run, don't get caught or tackled.
Figuring out how -- and how much -- to get Ellington the ball is Spurrier Jr.'s goal in camp and the early part of the season.
"We've really got to try to find out what he does best," he said. "He does a lot of good things. We'll identify what he does best and make sure he gets in there and fits that."
So, why did Ellington ultimately make the decision in March to play both sports?
Well, because he wanted to. The pressure from the Berkeley community about playing football was always present, but Ellington made it clear he wasn't going to do it to appease others. He would play only if he wanted to. And he did, eventually.
He came home to Berkeley after the basketball season and watched video of his old high school football games. A spark came to his eye and his mind was made up.
"I was like, 'Man, I've got to do it,' " Ellington said.
Whether Ellington publicly admits it or not, this two-sport arrangement will be complicated at times. His coaches, in both sports, certainly understand that.
And it takes a different sort of kid to handle the juggling act. Spurrier Jr. looks at Ellington and thinks he's uniquely capable.
"He's intelligent enough, mature enough," he said. "His grades are good enough. He doesn't have off-the-field issues.
"He's got all the things of a kid who can really pull it off. We'll take it a day at a time. But I don't know why he can do it."