Originally published March 25, 2011
BRUCE ELLINGTON’S decision this week to play football next fall provided a giant step forward for the South Carolina football program. Unfortunately, it also meant a giant step backward for the USC basketball program.
Ellington is a superb athlete, probably as talented as any to come out of this state in awhile. He proved himself capable of being an SEC-caliber basketball player as USC’s point guard this past season. The way Steve Spurrier has courted him since the end of the football season makes you believe he is capable of playing that sport at a high level as well.
While there is every reason to believe Ellington will be a valuable contributor in football, you have to also believe the time away from basketball will stunt his development in that sport.
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We live in a sports age of specialization. Few athletes come along anymore who can concentrate their efforts on more than one sport. More and more, athletes select their area of expertise in athletics at a young age and begin playing that particular sport year-round.
As a result, few develop the necessary skills to be multi-sport athletes at the collegiate level. It is particularly difficult for an athlete to play both football and basketball because of the high level of competition in those sports as well as the problems encountered with overlapping schedules.
Derek Watson, the immensely talented athlete who played football at USC from 1999 to 2001, was regarded as a top-level basketball player as well coming out of Palmetto High in Williamston. Watson excelled in football, but his brief fling with basketball showed him lacking the necessary skills to compete in the SEC.
Mike Eppley was a starting point guard on the basketball team and quarterback on the football team from 1982-84 at Clemson, but neither sport was nearly as demanding on his time as either is today. More recently, Clemson’s Kyle Parker was a quarterback in football and standout in baseball, two sports where schedules are not as overlapping.
Of course, there are other examples of athletes excelling in the two highest-profile sports. Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers were exceptional talents in football and basketball at about the same time in the late 1990s at North Carolina before both graduated to the NFL.
Perhaps the best of all was Charlie Ward, who won the Heisman Trophy as Florida State’s quarterback in 1993, and played point guard on the basketball team. He then played 12 seasons in the NBA.
At the conclusion of each football season, Ward switched his attention to basketball, usually the first or second week in January. He often said it took him until February, deep into conference season, to get into basketball playing shape.
The same would hold true for Ellington once he gets onto the football field, where Spurrier said he likely will play on offense. You have to believe he also could contribute immediately as a return specialist. Heck, a broken tackle by Ellington would be the first by a USC kickoff or punt returner in a couple of seasons.
Since USC will be expected every season to play in a bowl game, Ellington will have football obligations through the end of the calendar year. Spurrier said Ellington could shift his intention from football to basketball at the conclusion of the regular season, but that does not necessarily mean he could jump directly into the starting lineup or into a leadership role.
It became apparent during Ellington’s freshman basketball season that he hit a wall. Coupled with an injury, Ellington’s production declined sharply during the last half of the season. Part of the problem also could have been Ellington had never played that much basketball for an extended period. Throughout high school, Ellington never played the game year-round, and the lack of training caught up to him around mid-season.
In both sports, off-season workouts have become paramount to an individual and a team’s success. It appears Ellington will begin immediately on his off-season football workouts.
So, every day he concentrates on football is a day away from basketball. That can only hinder his growth as a basketball player at a crucial time. Many basketball players make their biggest leap in development between their freshman and sophomore seasons.
When recruited under a basketball scholarship offer from coach Darrin Horn, Ellington was promised an opportunity to play football as well. So, when Spurrier began exploring the possibility of Ellington joining his team, Horn honored that promise as he should have.
There is little doubting that Ellington’s move to football will cost Horn in the development of his basketball program. But Ellington also could prove to be a card Horn can play with Spurrier in a couple of seasons.
Lexington High’s Shaq Roland is every bit the athlete of Ellington and has been promised the chance to play football and basketball at USC. Should Roland choose to attend USC, he likely will be a football player first.
If so, you can bet Horn will be knocking on Spurrier’s door with a request for Roland to play basketball as well.