Bruce Ellington is going from two-sport star at South Carolina to a potential multi-use threat for the San Franciso 49ers.
Ellington, the sixth pick in the fourth round of the NFL draft, will look to win a spot on an crowded wide receiving corps and also audition as a return specialist.
“It was difficult because I love to compete and I love both sports,” said Ellington, who also played basketball at South Carolina before leaving the team in January upon declaring for the NFL draft. “Football is what I feel comfortable doing. I say about my second year playing football, I finally realized football is what I wanted to do.”
Among those who helped sway Ellington to the gridiron was Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecocks’ star running back who was drafted by the 49ers in last year’s fourth round.
“Marcus is a team player. He’s one of the guys who came to me and told me to play football,” Ellington said. “We have a good relationship. We’ll make it even better when I get up there.”
Ellington (5-foot-9, 197 pounds) led the Gamecocks last season with 49 receptions for 775 yards and eight touchdowns.
Ellington is the third South Carolina product who could play a key role for the 49ers this season. Cornerback Chris Culliver (2011 third-round pick) and Lattimore did not play last season but are poised to contribute if fully recovered from knee injuries.
Ellington was the 17th wide receiver selected. He met with the 49ers, and upon his selection Saturday, “They told me to come in and be ready to compete. I love to compete so I’ll come in and do what they ask me to do.”
Ellington joins a receiving corps, led by Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, that saw Stevie Johnson arrive in a Friday trade from the Buffalo Bills. Also, veteran Brandon Lloyd is attempting to return from a one-year hiatus.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh got an interesting endorsement of Ellington from Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean, Harbaugh’s brother-in-law.
Former USC basketball coach Darrin Horn, who recruited and signed Ellington in 2010 before he began playing football a year later, is a friend and former assistant coach of Crean’s.
“(Crean) thought South Carolina really missed Ellington in the (basketball) lineup and suffered for it,” Harbaugh said. “He was a big fan of the (draft) choice, as we all were.”
The 49ers went into last weekend’s draft looking to get more athletic, and the former USC point guard fit that mold as a fourth-round selection last Saturday.
“He’s a heck of an athlete, a very productive football player, very productive basketball player,” Harbaugh said. “Looking forward to exploring how we can use him.”
Speed at receiver has been a need for San Francisco since Harbaugh arrived in 2011. The team’s No. 1 WR, Michael Crabtree, tore his Achilles tendon last offseason and played in five games. Anquan Boldin, a free-agent signing in 2013, was the team’s most productive receiver but doesn’t have the kind of speed that stretches the field.
That’s what the 49ers hope Ellington does for them.
“Think of a bigger Ace Sanders, who came out of the same university,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “He’s quicker than fast, and can help you in the return game. The 49ers needed some wide receiver depth.”
Ellington ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. It ranked 11th of 42 receivers and helped his stock rise before the draft, although he did go lower than projected.
“You don’t play two sports and major college football at the level he did without having something special about you,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “He’s a skilled athlete. He’s a competitive athlete. He’s a smart and instinctive athlete. If you put all that together, you’ve got a pretty good package.”
Harbaugh also pointed out Ellington’s toughness and believes that’ll help him be a good blocker. Another selling point for the 49ers was Ellington’s special teams history. He returned 43 kickoffs at USC, and while LaMichael James is the 49ers’ primary returner, Harbaugh believes Ellington will still help him out in that facet of the game.
How much time Ellington immediately sees at receiver is difficult to predict. The 49ers have a lot of WRs on the roster right now, especially after trading with the Buffalo Bills for Stevie Johnson last week, but Ellington says that just gives him more people to learn from this year.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot of growth,” Ellington said. “I’ve only played (receiver) for three years so I feel like there are a lot more things I can learn to become a better player.”
“The way Marcus is wired, the way he works, if anybody can come back from an injury, it’s going to be Marcus,” Harbaugh said.