COLUMBIA — Bruce Ellington thought there was no way the third-down pass was coming to him.
All week in practice, South Carolina’s junior receiver was overlooked on the backside post. With USC in the red zone early in the second quarter Saturday, Ellington didn’t expect anything different. He ran his route anyway, turning his hips in front of a Vanderbilt cornerback, winning the race to the end zone.
Then ... surprise.
“When the (cornerback) was on the side of me, I kind of could see back to the quarterback,” Ellington said. “I saw (the ball) thrown in front of him, so I just went and got it.”
Ellington wasn’t the primary option on his first — and only — touchdown this season. It’s a fitting example of how September has gone for a receiver who carried high expectations into the fall, but has since been passed on the stat sheet by his less experienced teammates.
Sophomore Shaq Roland opened the season with a 65-yard touchdown catch against North Carolina. He leads the team with 161 receiving yards.
Junior Nick Jones has three touchdown catches in the past two weeks. He also leads the team with 11 receptions.
Ellington, meanwhile, stumbled at the start of the season, slowed by a hamstring injury. USC’s only established receiver in the offseason was quiet through the first two weeks before breaking out Saturday night, leading the Gamecocks with a career-high eight catches, 111 yards and the 26-yard touchdown.
“It’s great to be 100 percent,” Ellington said Wednesday after practice. “You can go out here and run full speed. You can do a lot of things you can’t do when your hamstring is bothering you. So it feels good just to come out here and be able to go all out.”
Ellington played in USC’s opener against the Tar Heels, but he said his hamstring remained sore until the next week’s practice leading up the Georgia game. He only caught one pass for 13 yards against the Bulldogs, while Jones shined with two scores.
If any doubts built up in Ellington’s mind, they’re gone now. On Saturday, Ellington proved he could still produce at a high level, like everyone expected. Now, he wants to build off that night.
The best player on South Carolina’s practice field this week was the best player wearing a Gamecocks uniform Saturday inside Williams-Brice Stadium. Coaches love it when their stars lead by example behind the curtains, when nobody but the team is watching. USC’s Steve Spurrier was no different.
The Head Ball Coach jogged over to the media throng after Wednesday’s practice, and he was in classic form. A big win against Vanderbilt last weekend? The program’s best offense in the past decade?
Spurrier wasn’t going there.
“I hate to say that,” Spurrier said. “Some of these guys can’t take praise. You don’t want to praise them too much, or they’ll think they’ve got it made. You’ve got to be careful about that.”
Spurrier changed his tune when talking about Ellington. The coach was far from careful, saving his highest praise for the junior receiver from Moncks Corner.
“One guy who busted his tail and ran full speed all day in practice today was Bruce Ellington,” Spurrier said. “Bruce had his — statistically — his best game here ever last week. Eight catches, 100-something yards, a touchdown — and he’s out here trying to get better every day.”
Even when his numbers were down in the first two weeks, Ellington showed the leadership expected of him. Freshman Pharoah Cooper said Ellington helped him fine-tune his stance, working on fundamentals. One after one, other receivers have offered thanks to Ellington for his guidance.
Ellington understands the greater point. He isn’t greedy about his numbers, putting team success first. That means multiple targets in the passing game, just as it’s been this month.
Sooner than later, it’s likely to be his turn.
“Guys were working all summer, and they know that we’re going to have to step up and make plays,” Ellington said. “Ace (Sanders) is gone. He played a big role. So, Shaq, he’s stepping up. Other guys like Nick Jones, he’s been making big plays, but he’s just getting noticed this year. Everybody is just out there trying to be a playmaker.”