COLUMBUS, Ohio — It's rarely easy for a freshman running back to make his mark on a team, as there are many factors which can keep that from happening.
Improved Elliott Fighting for Starting Spot
By Tony Gerdeman
A year ago Ezekiel Elliott came into a backfield that already featured Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall, which meant that 80% of the carries were already spoken for.
The opportunities were rare, but when Elliott was fortunate enough to get a bit of a longer look, he made the most of it. It's not a coincidence that his most impressive outing came against Florida A&M, which was the Buckeyes' most overmatched opponent.
In just his fourth game of his career, he carried the ball 14 times against the Rattlers for 162 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 57-yard burst down the sideline.
Photo by Jim Davidson
That outing constituted 62% of his rushing yards on the season, as he finished with 262 yards rushing on just 30 carries (8.7 ypc), but it wasn't the only game in which he flashed the abilities that Urban Meyer saw when he decided to offer Elliott a scholarship as a high schooler.
Now in his second season, Elliott is fighting to be the starting running back at The Ohio State University. It's a lofty goal, one that will certainly require Elliott to become a different player as a sophomore than he was as a freshman.
That doesn't mean that running backs coach Stan Drayton wants Elliott changing what works.
"I’ll tell you what’s not different, he’s still going as hard as he can possibly go," Drayton said of how Elliott is different as a sophomore.
"The one thing about Ezekiel is that he walked through the door with an incredible work ethic and that has sustained. Now it’s a matter of him taking his game to the next level, anticipating a little bit quicker, understanding defenses a little bit more. He’s still got a ways to go in his development but he’s definitely on track."
Before spring practice started, Urban Meyer said he expected it would be difficult for a running back to beat Elliott out for the starting job. Elliott's combination of speed, quickness and power makes him an ideal tailback in Meyer's offense, so it's easy to understand why Meyer would tag him as a starter.
Through eight practices, however, it's still too early to say how the race will eventually go. Elliott is trading first-team reps with senior Rod Smith, as both players are pitted against each other in order for the coaches to get the maximum out of each.
He did receive more carries than any of the other tailbacks on the current roster a year ago, and ran with the twos when Jordan Hall was injured in the second half of last season.
Elliott expects that experience to give him an edge this spring.
"I think it may have put me out in front of those guys," he said.
"Out there getting that playing experience, getting those jitters out. Now come spring, come fall, I’m ready, I know what to expect. I’m a lot better at anticipating what’s going to happen. That helps a lot, knowing before the snap what’s going to happen. It helps to play faster and that’s what you want to do."
Playing faster has been the mantra for the entire team this spring, and will probably remain that way for the rest of time. Playing faster may be what gets Elliott on the field this year, but it will be his entire collection of abilities that he expects will keep him there.
"I just think that I’m a very versatile back, I can do a lot of things," he explained.
"I can run the outside, I can run a tight zone, I’m a great pass catcher out of the backfield. I think I just bring a little versatility to the table. I’m a lot bigger, I’m a lot stronger, I’m faster, and I know the playbook, so that helps a lot."
Elliott has gained 20 pounds since he arrived at Ohio State, and is now playing at 225 pounds. He says that he feels faster than he ever has. The physical aspect of the game seems to suit him just fine, but his coaches will need the mental aspect to be just as suitable.
"I think I’m pretty solid on all the playbook," Elliott said.
"I came in as a freshman not knowing much. I didn’t come in the spring, I just came in the fall with a blank mind, not knowing much of the offense. Now I think I know the whole playbook like the back of my hand."
With that knowledge applied to the athletic ability that Elliott has shown, his future is very promising. But he still has to go out and earn the job. This is a battle that might not be settled until a few weeks into the season. Every rep in spring and summer will be analyzed and judged.
That type of pressure might be enough to make some crack. Elliott doesn't see it that way, however.
"I don’t think it’s pressure," he said.
"As athletes, we kinda like this. We play for opportunities like this. It’s fun to come out here every day and compete every day for a position like this. We all want it so it’s everything to me. I’m gonna give it all I’ve got."
How bad would it be if he doesn't win the starting job?
"It would be devastating to me," he admitted. "But like I said, the best back is going to play."
And right now, Elliott is working hard to make sure that that's him.
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