Prior to the Tennessee game, Bruce Ellington and Ace Sanders made a switch that few noticed. Ellington went from the slot to the outside, and Sanders moved into the slot.
It seemed like a minor adjustment, but it jump-started the passing attack over the final four games, all wins by South Carolina.
Ellington the teams leading receiver with 38 catches for 564 yards and six touchdowns did the bulk of his work over the final quarter of the season. In those four games, the Moncks Corner native hauled in 21 passes for 299 yard and four touchdowns.
Sanders had 17 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns to push his totals to 36 receptions for 439 yards and a team-leading seven touchdowns.
Its no different, were just getting the ball downfield, throwing it and catching it, Ellington said of the position switch. Thats the biggest difference.
Sanders attributes the better performance to everyone gaining more confidence in the system. Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson have looked more comfortable in the pocket, helping the offense average 268.5 yards through the air in the final four games. Before that stretch, they averaged 210 yards passing in the first eight games. It could be argued that running back Marcus Lattimore before his injury and tight end Justice Cunningham were more of a factor in the passing attack than the two wide receivers.
Its just better confidence for everybody, Sanders said. Once we get it through our heads that we believe in everybody and everybody can make the big play whether its Bruce or the tight ends or the backs out of the backfield. The confidence in the quarterbacks and the offensive line and us going out and doing what we have to do.
Those two will look to continue their late season-surge in the Outback Bowl against Michigan on Jan. 1. Senior receiver D.L. Moore has been suspended for the bowl game, and that could allow Shaq Roland, Nick Jones or Damiere Byrd more opportunities. But the bulk of the work likely will fall to Ellington and Sanders.
Ellington, the point guard on the USC basketball team, will play in Wednesdays hoops game against Appalachian State before devoting the rest of December to bowl preparation.
His development has been key. After taking a year off from football, Ellington had to learn the ins and outs of being a receiver at a high level.
He showed flashes last year, but this seasons finish is what many people expected when he decided to return to the gridiron. A year ago, he finished with 17 catches for 211 yards and 106 yards rushing out of the Wildcat package. This year, Ellington leads the team in all-purpose yards with 947.
Bruce has learned how to take over a game, Sanders said. He knows now he is capable of making the big play. He hasnt been scared to make that big play.
The position switch was not a big deal to either Ellington or Sanders. Both learned the other position long before the move was made.
It doesnt matter to me. Wherever they put me Im going to try and do my best, Ellington said. When we do test and stuff we have to learn every position so we know what everybody is doing so its not that big of deal.
The Gamecocks also have learned to make the most of every possession. Coach Steve Spurrier has come to rely on an impressive defense and ball-control offense to get South Carolina double-digit wins in consecutive years for the first-time in school history.
Thats fine with the receivers.
The way we play, we have limited possessions so we have to put the ball in the end zone when we get a chance, Sanders said. It kind of puts more pressure on us as an offense to try and limit our mistakes and score as many as points as we can.
WHO: USC (10-2) vs. Michigan (8-4)
WHEN: 1 p.m., Jan. 1
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5