Andre Ellington has had his share of big games and big plays throughout his career at Clemson. But he felt he needed a statement game to announce himself to the nation.
"Well, this is a statement season for me," Ellington said after he ran for 228 yards in a 26-19 win over Auburn this past weekend. "I came back to prove that I’m a guy that can go the long distance. As long as I stay healthy, I have an opportunity to do so."
Healthy being the operative word. Ellington has sat out parts of the past two seasons because of injuries. Last year, he hurt his ankle and missed the Georgia Tech game. In 2010, he hurt his toe, missed three games and only had one carry in the regular-season finale against South Carolina.
Coach Dabo Swinney has said repeatedly that this is the healthiest Ellington has looked in two years. After briefly toying with the idea of leaving school for the NFL draft, Ellington re-committed himself to the Tigers and to doing everything he could to get into camp in the best shape. Clemson did not work him out too much during preseason practice in order to cut down on the wear and tear.
What you saw Saturday was a fresh Ellington, a dazzling Ellington who ripped off five plays of 12 yards or more. You saw an Ellington with elusiveness, balance and complete awareness of the defenders around him. When he spun to avoid tacklers and keep his balance without having his knee touch the ground early in the game, folks in the press box marveled.
When he did it a second time, heads swiveled to the replay board to see how on earth he managed to not only stay upright, but gain chunks of yards while defenders collected themselves once they realized no whistle had blown.
"We do those drills in practice where we keep our balance by spinning and staying up," Ellington said. "It just came back to me. I don’t know how, but it was one of those moments."
Two of those moments.
"I caught the one out there on the edge where he somehow caught his balance, put his hand down and broke it for that long run," center Dalton Freeman said. "He’s a special player. We’re glad he’s on our team."
His performance was the best by a Clemson running back since C.J. Spiller had 233 yards against Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game in 2009. Ellington needs 417 rushing yards to become the fifth player in Clemson history to reach 3,000 career yards. At his pace, he could be closing in on that number against Furman in Week 3 or Florida State in Week 4.
Given the opposition the next two weeks, we could be seeing more of D.J. Howard and Roderick McDowell, so it is hard to know when Ellington will get to 3,000 yards. But he served notice this past weekend that he is healthy and strong. And maybe even one of the best backs in the nation.
After all, he had the top rushing performance of any player and leads the NCAA after Week 1.
"There’s no doubt in my mind who the best player was [against Auburn]," offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "Without a doubt, it was Andre Ellington. He was on a mission. He was relentless."
On a mission to make a statement.