By Ed McGranahan.
After seeing Andre Ellington for a few minutes yesterday, the wheels began to turn.
So much this season hinges on a reliable run game and, specifically on Ellington.
Reliable does not mean necessarily production based on yards per carry, or balance based on yards per game. It is about dependability, delivering on second-and-long or third-an-short, extending a drive and keeping a defense honest.
It is about being there.
Clemson’s record in the games Ellington started over three seasons is 15-5. That’s not to imply he was the reason Clemson won three out of every four games he started, but it’s indicative of his impact.
One of the losses was at Auburn two years ago, arguably the pivotal game of the season for both teams. He he rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown and helped give Clemson a chance to win. How different might history read had Kyle Parker not been crushed or Jaron Brown caught that pass?
Another that same year was at Boston College where he sustained an injury that essentially cost him the remainder of the season and required foot surgery.
Three of the five losses were to N.C. State, South Carolina and West Virginia at the tail end of last season. Ellington might have walked away afterward with his reputation intact as one of the most productive running backs in school history, a starter on a conference championship team.
Instead, he wanted to come back, largely for many of the same reasons as C.J. Spiller and Parker before him and current teammate center Dalton Freeman.
“We weren’t ready to leave the younger guys,” Ellington said. “We wanted to play on another championship team.”
It’s always a gamble, if you think about it. Worked well for Spiller, but not so well for Parker though he’ll probably be in a Colorado Rockies’ uniform late next season.
Ellington said he wanted to prove that he can be more versatile, so he worked on improving his receiving skills. And he wants to be remembered as a durable back. He has strapped on more than 20 pounds since he entered Clemson, and he looks the part.
“At the position I play, you’re going to take a lot of hits,” he said. “It’s a tough game, and that’s something you don’t have control over at this level.
“Last year I played through a lot of those (hits).”
So much depends on Freeman, one of the best in the country this season at that position, and his ability to whip the offensive line into shape. Without it, there’s little hope.
When Mike Bellamy couldn’t stick, Ellington’s decision became even more critical. D.J. Howard was the leading rusher in last year’s Auburn game, and Zac Brooks has the look of a big-time player, but for now, if there’s any chance for Clemson to succeed offensively, Ellington needs to be there.
He doesn’t need garage-size holes. Blessed with acute vision, jack rabbit acceleration and keen instincts, he only needs a crease, like when the screen door is swinging shut.
Pop, cut and he’s gone.
Ellington has also grown into as a leader and mentor, a role thrust upon him last year that he was unprepared to handle. “He’s a man now,” said Coach Dabo Swinney.
“I feel like I’m more confident now,” Ellington said. “I’ve matured a lot as a football player.
“The margin of error for me is pretty thin right now. I have to go out with a bang. I didn’t come back to settle for less.”