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March 29, 2013
CLEMSON -- Long ago, in what seems like a galaxy far away, there was a time when Clemson had marginal talent at running back.
The three seasons after Woody Dantzler, Clemson produced Kyle Browning, Yusef Kelly, Duane Coleman and Reggie Merriweather. The highest individual rushing total over those three seasons? Merriweather's 670 in 2004.
So if you can, imagine being told back in those days that Clemson was on the verge of producing a succession of three running backs who would close their careers second, third and fourth on the school's career rushing list.
James Davis, 3,881 yards. C.J. Spiller, 3,547. Andre Ellington, 3,436.
Boom, boom, boom.
How extraordinary is it to land three running backs in a row like that? And how extraordinary is it for all three of them to reverse decisions to turn pro early and remain at Clemson all four years?
The third chapter concluded in the Chick-fil-A Bowl when Ellington played his last game in orange. But watching the Lowcountry native work out for NFL personnel Friday morning at the indoor practice facility, you felt the urge to pay proper respect to this assembly line of elite backs in general, and Ellington in particular.
A few weeks ago, Nuk Hopkins conducted his Pro Day in the same building and it drew a crowd. All but one NFL team showed, and about 15 media members followed his every move.
Today, Ellington worked out for what appeared to be about 20 NFL teams. Four or five media members showed. The reason for the delay was the hamstring that Ellington tweaked during Senior Bowl practices and aggravated at the NFL Combine.
But Ellington took the optimistic approach, relishing having the stage all to himself.
"I was able to come out here and perform for those guys on my own and have all eyes on me and kind of be the main event," he said. "I feel like that worked out the best."
Ellington has been overshadowed since he arrived at Clemson in the summer of 2008, when everyone was abuzz over the Tigers largely because of Davis and Spiller. He redshirted that season, but coaches knew right away they had something special. Former offensive coordinator Rob Spence compared him to Ray Rice at the time.
Ellington hasn't exactly been a footnote the last two seasons, but the real glamour figures have been Chad Morris, Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Hopkins as the Tigers have amassed 21 wins and broken down a lot of the barriers that existed when Ellington signed with Clemson.
The spotlight was his in 2010 after Spiller's departure, but the Tigers had precious few playmakers at receiver and the offense bottomed out during a 6-7 disappointment. He missed the second half of that season after suffering a toe injury.
In January of 2012, after the Tigers absorbed the humiliation against West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, Ellington was all but gone. Morris was so concerned that he cut short a mini-vacation in Florida to help Dabo Swinney sell him on returning. Morris later called Ellington's decision to remain the biggest recruiting coup of the year.
In January of 2008, Davis announced he was turning pro but couldn't resist the tug of remaining at Clemson. And a year later, Spiller shocked everyone - including himself, probably - by walking to the podium inside a packed auditorium and announcing he was coming back.
Ellington still had things to prove to the NFL scouts despite averaging 5.76 yards a carry and scoring 25 touchdowns his first three years. He needed to show he could make it through a season without getting dinged, and he needed to show he was a viable receiving threat.
He didn't make it through the season unscathed, suffering a hamstring injury in the ninth game against Duke. He caught just 14 passes, but he points out he snared "every pass that was thrown to me."
The hamstring injury suffered at the Senior Bowl was to his other leg, and it came at the worst possible time with him under the white-hot glare of the NFL microscope. He said he was down after aggravating it in Indianapolis, but his spirits weren't sagging for long.
"Throughout my life things have happened for a reason, and better things have always come after the bad things," he said. "I looked at this situation the same way after I sat and thought about it."
Ellington, who walked away from today pleased with his Pro Day exhibition, said the scouts haven't been all that preoccupied with the hamstring. He's at about 80 percent, and he thinks he's among the best running backs in the draft class even at less than full strength.
"There was a little bit of doubt here and there from teams," he said. "But just to go out there and perform at not 100 percent and still stand out pretty good, I feel like I did what I had to do. They really didn't ask much about the hamstring. I'm guessing it's a common injury, especially for backs and skill guys that run really fast. They're all just saying 'Get that thing healthy.' That's the main focus: Just be focused and dialed in on your rehab and getting better."
Ellington said he and Hopkins worked out in Clemson last week for New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, spending time on catching drills but mostly just sitting around talking football. Ellington thinks picking up NFL terminology won't be tremendously difficult because he's always had a good grasp of concepts. Scouts are also interested to gauge his aptitude in the return game.
Ellington doesn't compare himself to anyone, saying "I'm only my own self." But he does mention Reggie Bush and his old pal Spiller.
"Just that ability to take it 60 yards, 100 yards off of one play," he said. "Catching the ball out of the backfield and playing special teams as well."
This is the season for sober, unforgiving evaluation. And Ellington didn't try to embellish his abilities when asked about his top gear compared to Bush and Spiller.
"That's a little different right there," he said with a smile. "I don't have that fifth gear like those guys have. But first to third, I can roll with them."
With that, Ellington rolled out of the building and the credits rolled on a spectacular era for Clemson running backs.
We might see some good ones, even great ones, from this point forward. But we're not going to see what we saw over the last eight years.
*** To chat with other Clemson fans about this article please visit The West Zone message board.