SAPAKOFF COLUMN: South Carolina's Bruce Ellington is Mr. November
COLUMBIA — He is a Clemson killer known to South Carolina fans as “BRUUUUCE!”
Bruce Ellington is a multi-talented mixed blessing for the Gamecocks.
He has two years of eligibility left, and might not play any more football after this season.
He wasn't much of a factor on offense in six of the Gamecocks' first eight games this season, but is South Carolina's new “go-to” receiver.
Basketball can wait, at least one game longer. Ellington, a sophomore from Moncks Corner who came to South Carolina as a point guard, has thrived since moving from a slot receiver position to an “X” spot split out wide. Just in time, he seems poised for a big game Saturday night at archrival Clemson.
While compiling a 10-1 record, the Tigers have struggled with speedy receivers able to find holes in a still suspect secondary. Ellington is a good kick returner, too, and about to field kickoffs against a team fresh from allowing N.C. State's Tobias Palmer to amass 277 yards on eight returns.
“Every game is not going to be played the same,” Ellington said Tuesday. “If they had a couple of mistakes in that game, they're probably going to fix it. We just have to be prepared for what the defense gives us.”
As a receiver, Ellington was great at that against Tennessee and Arkansas. Each of his back-to-back games with 100-plus yards receiving included a touchdown.
The Tigers are all too aware of No. 23. Ellington was in Mr. November-mode last year, too, one of the stars of South Carolina's 34-13 romp over Clemson. He caught three passes for 71 yards and the game's first touchdown.
“X” marks the spot
Bruce's cousin and former Berkeley High School teammate Andre Ellington is Clemson's NFL-bound running back. Bruce Ellington's two visits to Death Valley came while accompanying Andre on recruiting trips.
“It's a loud stadium. They're going to be out there cheering for their team,” Ellington said. “We just have to go in there and be focused and don't worry about the crowd, just worry about us and do what we have to be doing.”
After that, Ellington's plans are fluid.
“Right now, I haven't made the decision on what I want to do,” Ellington said.
He probably will rejoin the basketball team, as he did last December, for some games between the Clemson game and South Carolina's bowl game.
Ellington definitely sparked the offense in the 38-35 victory over Tennessee. It was the first game in which Ellington and Ace Sanders exchanged wide and slot receiver roles, a week after Ellington had zero catches in a rocky 44-11 loss at Florida.
“I'm just running the route and the ball is coming to me,” Ellington explained.
'Bruce can do it all'
No, it's a more impressive than that. South Carolina was struggling with Arkansas, up only 14-10 in the second quarter, when Ellington broke the game open by breaking off a route against a two-deep zone defense. He slowed down in a sideline seam between a cornerback who remained near the line of scrimmage and a safety waiting deep in the secondary.
The Connor Shaw pass and Ellington run added up to a 42-yard touchdown play.
In a 24-7 win over Wofford last week, Ellington and Sanders shared the “X” and slot roles.
The two have similar football skill sets and physiques (Ellington is 5-9, 197, and Sanders 5-8, 175).
The new role has helped Ellington jump into the reception lead among Gamecocks receivers, 31 catches to Sanders' 30.
“I really think he's effective anywhere you put him on the field,” Sanders said after the Wofford game. “He's pretty much an all-around athlete. Bruce can do it all.”
Unselfishness production is necessary for South Carolina against the high-scoring Tigers, maybe troubling for Clemson.
That was part of the plan when Ellington started focusing on football months ago.
“I had the whole summer just to think about football and playing football, so that pretty much just helped me in my all-around game,” he said. “I thought my year would be like this.”
The better it ends, the more joy and angst in Gamecocks Nation.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff