Andre Ellington is Clemson’s Mr. Irreplaceable
The sales pitch to Andre Ellington was a unified message from coaches and teammates last winter. Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said it went something like this:
Hometown: Moncks Corner
Stats: Career average of 5.7 yards per carry is second best in program history, trailing only C.J. Spiller (5.85). Ellington rushed for 1,178 yards last season and 11 touchdowns. Has rushed for 2,355 career yards and 25 touchdowns
“Andre, you rushed for 1,200 yards when you weren’t healthy last season. What’s going to happen when you are healthy?”
Yes, NFL dreams and paychecks pulled at Ellington following the talented running back’s junior season. Part of him wondered what else he had to prove in college.
Ellington’s 5.7 yards per carry average ranks second in Clemson history behind C.J. Spiller (5.85). He knows that running backs only have so much life in their legs. But the ‘what ifs’ planted by his coaches and teammates kept coming back.
What kind of numbers could he put up if he can stay healthy for the entire season? Could he rush for 1,644 yards to become the school’s all-time leading rusher, surpassing Raymond Priester (3,966 yards)? Could he elevate his standing in the NFL draft, which currently puts him as a third-round prospect?
After Ellington announced his intention to return for his senior year, Morris called him the program’s top recruit of the offseason.
How important is Ellington to the Tigers? He is perhaps the most irreplaceable player on the roster. When Ellington was healthy, Clemson was at its best last season. When Ellington received 15 or more carries in a game, Clemson was 8-0. When he received fewer, the Tigers were 2-4.
In 2012, No. 14 Clemson wants to see what Mr. Irreplaceable can do over a full season.
“Now that we have him healthy, now that he’s had a great summer and a great camp, we are expecting great things,” Morris said. “I think he has a chance to be one of the best running backs in the country. I know he’s working on the little things that are going to make him better.”
The key is keeping Ellington on the field.
Ellington missed five games in the second half of the last two seasons. He was hampered by an ankle injury last year and battled turf toe in 2010.
Ellington’s focus in 2012 in about proving his durability.
“I worked my butt off in the offseason,” said Ellington, the former Berkeley High School star. “We train different parts of the body. We do a lot of sprint work that helps out with the ankle and fast-twitch muscles.”
At 5-10, 195 pounds, durability has always been a concern. Running backs coach Tony Elliott said he is limiting Ellington in camp to keep him fresh. And while the Tigers want Ellington to be stronger and more flexible, they didn’t want him to gain weight.
“You don’t want to put too much weight on his lower body because he’ll lose what he’s good at,” Elliott said, “which is making that one cut and hitting the home run.”
Ellington notes part of staying healthy as a smaller back is simply luck.
Head coach Dabo Swinney knows this, too.
“I’m just praying the good Lord will keep him healthy,” Swinney said, “because I think he’s in for a special year.”
Swinney might also be praying because he knows there is little proven depth behind Ellington.
Not only is Ellington a quick and decisive runner, But he also is adept at pass blocking and ball security, areas that were exposed as weaknesses when Ellington was not on the field last season.
Clemson’s perfect season came to an end in October when he sat out the Georgia Tech game due to an ankle sprain. In that game, reserve backs D.J. Howard and Mike Bellamy each lost fumbles in the Tigers’ 31-17 loss.
In addition to staying healthy, the Tigers are hoping that Ellington will play a bigger role in their passing game.
Ellington has just 45 catches in three years at Clemson. Spiller caught 123 passes as a Tiger.
“Me and Tajh (Boyd) stayed out extra working on some pass plays and just running trying to be more proficient in that area,” Ellington said. “Just working on my hands ... being more fluid out of the backfield.”
And what if Ellington becomes a complete and healthy player in 2012? Elliott says look out.
“I think he’s turned that corner from a mental toughness and a maturity standpoint,” Elliott said. “He understands it’s his last go-round. He knows the expectations and responsibilities that he has. I think he’s prepared.”