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August 5, 2011

Gridiron Extra: Bruce rocks the house



Bruce Ellington received a rude introduction to major college football from cornerback Stephon Gilmore on Wednesday.

During a one-on-one drill in Ellington's very first practice with the Gamecocks since joining the program from the basketball team, he was matched up with Gilmore, one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC.

Ellington quickly discovered why.

Gilmore leaped forward and jammed Ellington at the line of scrimmage, knocking him backwards a bit and stunning the former Berkeley High School standout. He never left the line of scrimmage. Welcome to the SEC, kid.

"He told me over the summer when we were working out that he was going to get me," Ellington said on Thursday. "He came and got me. It surprised me a little bit because I had never been jammed before. I'm getting into it now. I'll do better next time."

But those type of awkward moments have been few and far between for Ellington in his first two workouts. After leading the men's basketball team in scoring during the 2010-11 season, he initially announced his intention to play football in late March. However, an NCAA rule prevented him from suiting up and he had to wait until the start of summer workouts in late May before finally realizing his goal.

Ellington has shown the same speed and quickness on the football field as the basketball court in his attempt to become an ever-increasing rarity in Division I -- a two-sport athlete that excels in both sports.

Coach Steve Spurrier simply remarked, "Brice Ellington is a football player," after watching him in the opening practice.

The biggest challenge for Ellington so far has been learning the plays and knowing where to line up. He has found an unlikely ally in his attempt to learn the offense.

"As I've learned the plays, I've gotten more comfortable out here," Ellington said. "Ace Sanders has really helped me even though we're playing the same position. That's kind of surprising because we're fighting for the same spot, but he's a good teammate. Every time I need help, he's been there."

Because of his special skills, Ellington will get an opportunity to quickly prove he belongs on the field. Wide receiver and kick returner could eventually become his two primary positions, but you soon might have to add a third -- wildcat quarterback.

Ellington told reporters he has spoken with USC coaches about directing the "Wildcat" offense, a role formerly held by Gilmore, and installation of that offense could begin on Friday when USC returns to The Proving Grounds for the third practice of the fall.

Thursday, Ellington continued to show off his impressive speed, making several catches in stride. However, he struggled fielding punts, dropping a couple at his feet. The higher trajectory of punts at the major college level is another thing he's had to get accustomed to.

"Usually, in high school the ball didn't come that high," Ellington said. "Usually I caught it on the bounce."

Besides just practicing football for the first time since December 2009 when he led the Stags to the Class AAAA Division II state championship (he carried 23 times for 191 yards in the title game) and was a finalist for the Mr. Football Award won by Marcus Lattimore, Ellington said another adjustment will come Sunday when USC puts on full pads for the first time and starts hitting.

"We haven't started contact yet. That's probably going to be the hardest thing to get used to," Ellington said. "And the speed (of the game) is a lot faster than high school. I realized that everyone is the same speed I am or even faster."

USC wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. told reporters he has seen enough from Ellington in two days to gain a sense that the Moncks Corner native will make a major contribution in 2011.

Ellington, who made the dean's list in the spring semester, his second on campus, spent about 15-20 minutes after practice working with Spurrier Jr. on learning how to catch passes over his shoulder.

"He has a lot to learn, but he's a sharp, mature, intelligent, proven SEC talent," Spurrier Jr. said. "We're going to get him ready to play. Right now, I don't know exactly where or how often. We're just going to keep trying to find out what he does best. He does a lot of good things. We have to find out what he does best. He catches the ball a little better than I thought he would. For a guy who didn't play a lot of receiver, he's got a lot of ball skills."

Will Ellington succeed in his quest to become a two-sport athlete in the rough-and-tumble SEC? Don't bet against it.

"I've done it pretty much all my life since I was young," Ellington said. "I'm not going into it shaking my head saying, 'I can't do it.' I'm just going to go in and do it."

The biggest difference between Division I football and basketball players? The former are "meaner" than the latter, he said.

SHAW COMPETING: Next to the Melvin Ingram-Jadeveon Clowney battle at defensive end, the quarterback competition between incumbent starter Stephen Garcia and last season's backup Connor Shaw has attracted more interest than anything else over thre first two days of practice.

"So far, so good," Shaw said. "It feels good getting back out here and getting into the routine. I'm out here competing to the best of my ability. My job is to be a competitor."

Shaw acknowledged he did not accomplish as much as he wanted to in the spring, but feels he made major strides over the summer and "got really better."

"Connor has taken the same approach he's had since he came here," center T.J. Johnson said. "He's the type of guy who comes in and works hard. He's a coach's son, so he's used to getting drilled. He's done everything he's supposed to since he's been here."

JOHNSON, O-LINE 'MORE COMFORTABLE': After two spring practices, a fall camp and one complete football season, the USC offensive line is getting more and more comfortable running the inside zone play. It turned into one of the Gamecocks' bread and butter plays last season because Lattimore ran the play a lot at Byrnes High School, but now USC wants to perfect the details.

"I feel like we are," Johnson said when asked if USC was more comfortable running the inside zone this season. "Anytime you do something for two years in a row and do the same type of stuff, of course you're going to be more comfortable."

The improvement in executing the inside zone play mirrors the progress the USC offense has exhibited since Johnson joined the program in 2008, he says.

"I think it has made leaps and bounds," Johnson said. "Coach Spurrier has the coaching staff he wants in place and they have the players in here who can make the plays. It's exciting to watch. It's going to be an exciting season to see what happens. I believe everything has improved since I've been here."

Speaking of leaps and bounds, Johnson has improved dramatically since being asked to move to center in the spring of 2010. He started all 13 games at right guard in 2009. After initially struggling, his snaps are now perfect nearly every time.

"The main thing with that was repetition," Johnson said. "The more reps you get, the more comfortable you feel. It was a little awkward at first, but now I'm starting to feel a little more comfortable. I could tell a difference by the end of the year."

LIKE BROTHER, LIKE BROTHER?: USC wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has already had one of the most prolific careers in Gamecock history even though he's just entering his junior season. His younger brother Shamier Jeffery (wearing No. 8) joined the program this summer and appears to be adapting well to Division I college football through two practices of fall camp. Alshon is reluctant to make comparisons between himself and his younger brother.

"It's the same as high school, kind of fun", Alshon Jeffery said. "But he still has a lot to learn and he has to learn how to play fast. You can't compare anyone to anyone else. That's how I feel about it. I don't compare myself to anybody else. Everybody is their own person."

MISCELLANEOUS:

-- Jeffery on Garcia: "He was just focused and tried to stay low key (this summer). He was getting ready to play football. I expect him to be the quarterback."

-- Johnson on Garcia's summer: "We just always assumed he was going to be here. We back him 100 percent. I felt like Stephen had a great summer. He has stepped up more and become more of a leader. He's been doing everything he's supposed to do."

-- The season-opener at Bank of America Stadium will mark USC's third straight neutral-site game, following the SEC Championship game and the Chick-fil-A Bowl last December.

-- USC will play three opponents this season with the nickname Bulldogs -- Georgia, Mississippi State and The Citadel.

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