CLEMSON — When it came right down to it, Andre Ellington’s decision was easy.
Leave Clemson after his junior season as a potential third-round NFL pick?
Or come back for a final season, work with a talented offense and become a more complete tailback?
“Once I talked to coach (Dabo Swinney) and got some understanding on things, I felt good about my decision to come back,” Ellington explained this week.
His teammates and coaches are glad he did. Saturday, Ellington begins his senior season as a key piece of the Tigers’ hurry-up, no-huddle system when No.14 Clemson takes on Auburn in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
“We’re excited about Andre,” said offensive coordinator Chad Morris. “He was probably the top signing, the top recruit we had this year.”
Ellington is the ACC’s active career leader in rushing yards (2,355) and touchdowns (25), and is coming off a junior season that saw him rush for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He started all 13 games he played in, missing only a loss at Georgia Tech while battling through nagging ankle and hamstring injuries.
Even though he has yet to play a full, healthy season (his sophomore year ended after nine games with a foot injury), Ellington is among Clemson’s top 10 all-time rushers and sits only 1,611 yards behind leader Raymond Priester. With a monster year, he could become the program’s all-time leading rusher.
“It’s a good achievement, but that’s a stat – it doesn’t matter to me,” Ellington said. “If it happens, it happens.”
He’s far more focused on leading Clemson to another ACC championship and rounding out his skills.
In 36 career games, Ellington has 45 receptions for 273 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per reception with one career receiving score.
“I figured that a guy like me, my size (5-foot-10, 195 pounds) won’t be an every-down back in the NFL,” he said. “I have to be a pass-catcher out of the backfield, wherever I’m lined up in the slot.”
Morris’ offense is an excellent place to hone those skills.
“This is perfect,” he said. “He’s expanding the offense, expanding players to get them in situations to catch balls as opposed to a straight zone offense.”
Ellington never ever looked at his actual draft evaluation from the NFL; it came to Clemson’s football offices. He discussed the projection – which said he could go as high as the third round – over the phone with director of player relations Jeff Davis on his way home to Moncks Corner following the Orange Bowl.
He said he was “weighing more of coming back”; he and classmate Dalton Freeman, who also asked for an evaluation, had a feeling of unfinished business.
“We just talked about how we wanted to finish it off on a good note,” Ellington said. “Have that senior season where we could be remembered as those seniors who actually put in the work.”
To accomplish more, he’ll actually probably put in less punishing work. This month, Swinney and Morris limited his scrimmage and practice work with the stated goal of developing backups D.J. Howard, Rod McDowell and Zac Brooks.
The goal is two-fold: keep Ellington’s legs fresh and have his understudies ready in case something goes haywire.
“Coach is doing a great job subbing us out, getting us shorter reps this year,” Ellington said. “Letting D.J. and Rod play a little more. I worked hard and hopefully it shows this season.
“They’ll get more carries this year. Last year they were kind of young, and in the games we played last year, you didn’t want young guys in that situation.”
Overall, however, this is Ellington’s moment – one that he is ready to seize.
“His sense of urgency, attention to detail, all that has been crazy,” Howard said. It’s going to be a great year for him. I’m looking forward to it.”