CLEMSON — Two games into his final season, Andre Ellington has quietly achieved more at running back than all but a handful of Clemson players.
On teams noted for their inclination to pass, Ellington has rushed for more yardage than all but seven men in school history and scored more touchdowns than all but five.
It’s come despite a perception that he’s fragile and prone to injury. After rushing for 228 yards against Auburn to open the season — more than any back in the nation — Ellington scored two touchdowns but played barely more than a quarter last week against Ball State when Clemson cleared the bench in the rout.
Today’s game with Furman could be similar, though coach Dabo Swinney warned, “We can’t go into any game assuming anything like that.” Preserving Ellington for the more critical stretch beginning next week at Florida State and assuring he maintains his rhythm becomes a delicate juggling act for Clemson.
“If it works,” said Swinney, “great.”
Back from the purgatory of a two-game suspension, Sammy Watkins needs the work. As center Dalton Freeman pointed out, “we’ve proved we can win without him,” but Ellington can afford another cameo appearance if Clemson chooses to work on its depth at running back. Furman, which opened the season with narrow losses to Samford and Coastal Carolina, never has won in Death Valley and last beat Clemson in 1936.
Historically, though, Clemson is far better with Ellington than without him. Clemson’s record in the games Ellington started is 17-5. One of those losses was at Auburn two years ago, when he rushed for 140 yards. Another was the same year at Boston College, when he sustained a foot injury and missed most of the remainder of the season.
That injury, more than any other of the bumps and bruises, has contributed to the perception that Ellington can be fragile. Surgery repaired the damage, but the recovery was long and tedious. Ellington entered last season behind in his training. It wasn’t until the seventh game, a 212-yard performance at Maryland, that he began to show out. In the North Carolina game the next week, he tweaked an ankle and missed the following game at Georgia Tech.
“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.”
Ellington finished the season with his seventh and eighth 100-yard games then tossed around the thought of jumping to the NFL. He and Freeman talked and decided they would both return, for many of the same reasons as C.J. Spiller and Kyle Parker before them. It was a gamble that worked well for Spiller, but not so well for Parker, though he’ll probably be in a Colorado Rockies’ uniform late next season.
“We weren’t ready to leave the younger guys,” Ellington said. “And we wanted to play on another championship team.”
Ellington also wanted to improve his versatility — so he focused on his receiving skills — and his durability.
“Last year, going into the season, I didn’t have the opportunity to do a lot of the leg work. This year, I was able to go all through the spring and summer,” he said. Since entering Clemson in 2008, Ellington has added more than 20 pounds, and he looks the part.
His toughest challenge might have been acclimating as a role model. Quiet and modest, Ellington occasionally startles his teammates when he becomes animated.
“He’s a guy that when he’s all jacked up,” said Freeman, “it becomes contagious.”
Ellington acknowledges his role even though it doesn’t come naturally.
“I’ve got to make sure I’m doing the right things, because a lot of guys look up to me,” he said. “I don’t talk a lot, but I try to take that approach of leading by example.”