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October 18, 2011

Cloninger: The bigger man



"I was wrong."
-------------- SOCIAL DISTORTION

Boy, have y'all been waiting for this one.

I had this date circled on my calendar since the preseason. It was the first regular day after Oct. 15, which would be South Carolina's seventh football game and the official start of basketball practice. It was on this day that I was going to sit down, examine the statistics and write what I have truly believed ever since last March - that it was time for Bruce Ellington to give up this little football experiment and get back to where he would be given a chance to be - and already was - a superstar.

Can't do it. As much as I want to, I can't. Just like all of you, I watched the game at Mississippi State, I saw Ellington return a kick, catch a pass, throw a pass and run the ball, and especially now, I saw how important Ellington is to the Gamecocks' football team.

As much as they would love to have him over on the basketball court, he's got to stay where he is. Got to.

Because when this switch happened, Ellington, at best, was going to be a star on a team full of stars, instead of being THE star. Now, he's got a chance and will be given an opportunity to be THE star in football, just as he was in basketball.

My reasons for not liking the move were simple. While I would never be against a kid doing what he wants to do to be happy, I had my doubts as to whether Ellington was switching to football because he simply wanted to be happy. Players cheerfully admitted that they were blowing up Ellington's cell phone after his first hoops season, telling him how great he could be on the gridiron. You're 19 years old, you're coming off a disappointing year, you were an absolute monster the last time you stepped on the football field - you hear all of that, you'd switch, too.

Ellington said that he could be happy, but that was in the preseason, when everybody's practicing and there is nothing really being proven. I thought, "Yeah, that'll stand until he gets on the field and finds out that this sure ain't high school."

The first five games, I was right. Ellington wasn't being used that much and when he was, the plays often went nowhere. Throw in a troubling tendency to fumble on kickoff returns, and every time he touched the ball, I'd mutter, "OK. Time to go back where you belong."

Maybe it was simple pettiness left over from the state championship game two years ago, when I sat in that same pressbox and watched him run all over my beloved alma mater. Most of it was knowing how crucial he was to the basketball team, and how when all this hoopla descended on Ellington switching to football, no one ever seemed to mention the other side of the coin - what happens if he plays football, and fails?

Then came Kentucky, where he skirted the edge and blasted off for a 61-yard touchdown. I thought it was very impressive, but was still hesitant to declare Ellington the answer - a late-game touchdown against a horrendous team wasn't exactly what the doctor ordered.

But then, one game later, two things happened. Ellington was put in winnable situations, and won; and Marcus Lattimore was lost for the season, leaving the Gamecocks with just one true healthy tailback on the roster.

Brandon Wilds, I think, will be very, very good as the Gamecocks' primary rusher, although he won't be Lattimore (who could be?). But now Ellington, with his mix of speed, ability to direct his blockers where he needs them to go (USC's best runs against the Bulldogs were where Ellington put a hand in T.J. Johnson's back and pushed him in front) and, yes, proof that he can pass, too, is going to be vital to the Gamecocks' game plans.

Steve Spurrier was coy about it on Sunday, replying to a question on Ellington being used more, that if he was, he wouldn't tell us - no need to game-plan in the media. There can't be any doubt, though, about what the Head Ball Coach is thinking - keep the passing game short, use Wilds as much as he can, and get the ball in Ellington's hands.

He's feeling comfortable, now, winning SEC Co-Freshman of the Week honors for his MSU performance, and there's no need to disrupt that flow. The Gamecocks have two weeks to prepare for Tennessee, and to devise an offensive plan that can serve to beat the Volunteers and be a blueprint for the rest of the Lattimore-less season.

Ellington will be a key figure in those plans. The basketball team, knowing that Ellington would be gone for at least the first half of the season, has been preparing to play without him anyway. Eric Smith has approached the offseason like he would be the starting point guard, and he will be. And for what it's worth, Ellington has gone to a lot of basketball practices, conditioning and events that he really didn't have to go to, showing a very strong commitment to doing what he said he'd do - return after football.

Bruce Ellington needs to play football for USC.

And I was wrong for thinking otherwise.

Darn it.

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