NFL Draft: South Carolina's Bruce Ellington stars in Capital One Bowl
The pregame hype focused on South Carolina teammate Jadeveon Clowney and Wisconsin's powerful running game but with six catches for a career-high 140 yards and three touchdowns scored, Ellington stole the spotlight instead.
Virtually all of the build-up prior to Wednesday's Capital One Bowl showdown between South Carolina and Wisconsin focused on defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and how he'd perform against the Badgers' powerful rushing attack.
It was another draft-eligible Gamecock who stole the spotlight, however, as junior wide receiver Bruce Ellington caught two touchdowns and threw for another, leading USC to a 34-24 victory.
The 5-foot-9, 197-pound redshirt junior didn't enter the game with the type of production to wow scouts, posting "just" 43 catches for 635 yards and six touchdowns on the year.
Ellington demonstrated remarkable body control and hand-eye coordination against the Badgers, however, hauling in six catches for a career-high 140 yards - including a couple of highlight reel grabs certain to excite scouts about his untapped potential.
Ellington's first touchdown may have been his easiest grab of the day, as senior quarterback Connor Shaw hit him in stride on a deep post to give the Gamecocks a 7-0 lead in the closing seconds of the first quarter.
A more impressive grab came midway through the second quarter when Ellington showed the ability to quickly locate and adjust to another well-thrown pass from Shaw.
With Wisconsin senior safety Dezmen Southward in tight coverage against Ellington, Shaw fired a deep ball to the only spot where his receiver could make an attempt at the catch without risking an interception - low and away. Showing the ability to contort his body that has helped him on the basketball court as South Carolina's point guard, Ellington reached back and to his left, hauling in the pass for a gain of 32 yards.
Every highlight reel in American should show the catch and yet Ellington was just getting started.
Just a few seconds later, Ellington took a pitch from Pharoh Cooper near the left sideline off of a double-reverse and lofted a touchdown pass of his own into the right side of the end zone to a wide open Shaw for a nine-yard score to give the Gamecocks a 14-7 lead.
Perhaps his most impressive play of the game, however, was on a 4th and 7 with 4:35 remaining in the third quarter.
The Badgers had retaken the lead at 17-14 and with the Gamecocks in no-man's land at the 44-yard line, Steve Spurrier elected to go for it. Shaw, again showing impressive accuracy to throw his receivers open, lofted a pass down the left sideline toward Ellington who was tightly covered once again by Southward.
Ellington was running towards the left sideline with Wisconsin's safety trailing behind him. With little room to fit the ball into his receiver, Shaw instead threw the ball more upfield, forcing Ellington to turn and relocate the football. Spinning back toward the ball, Ellington reached out with his left hand and tipped it to himself, making a spectacular catch at a critical moment look easy.
Finishing what he started, Shaw hooked up with Ellington seconds later for the 22-yard score to retake the lead.
At his height, Ellington doesn't possess the frame scouts are looking for as an outside receiver. His solid build, fluidity and speed and impressive hands, however, make him very intriguing as a slot receiver and return specialist, just like his former teammate Ace Sanders and a similar big play threat as his cousin, Andre Ellington -- each of whom outplayed their draft selections to flash as rookies with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Arizona Cardinals, respectively.
While Shaw and Ellington provided the fireworks on the offensive side of the ball, Clowney and the South Carolina defense made big plays when it mattered most.
As was the case throughout much of the 2013 season, Clowney was held largely in check - at least statistically speaking. The Badgers elected to run away from him throughout most of the game and therefore his five tackles aren't eye-popping. He demonstrated his remarkable get-off to register an impressive tackle for loss early in the game and became more of a factor when Wisconsin was forced to pass late, including tipping a pass (with his helmet) which led to Kaiwan Lewis' interception with 4:30 remaining that should have sealed South Carolina's win.
As was expected, Clowney announced moments after South Carolina's victory that he was forgoing his senior season and heading into the 2014 draft.
Ellington, a redshirt junior, hasn't made an official statement but he turned in his paperwork to the NFL Advisory Committee.
"I am just waiting on my papers right now. If it says pretty good, I am going to talk to (Martin, South Carolina's head basketball coach) and tell him I want to go if there's a chance I can leave," Ellington told reporters a few days ago. "I am just thinking about it right now."
Considering his sparkling performance against the Badgers, Ellington's decision might be that much easier.
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