Ohio State assistant Tony Alford was so giddy at the thought of being Ezekiel Elliott’s new position coach that he temporarily misplaced his filter.
When asked this spring what it will be like to go from Notre Dame to the role of running backs coach at OSU, Alford immediately retorted, “I don’t know. Is it pretty easy to drive a Lexus after you’ve been driving a Volkswagen?”
Alford then gulped and recalled he had several topflight skill players under his tutelage at ND the past six years.
“Those guys are really good players, too,” he said. “But in all seriousness, it certainly helps to come here and have great players around and some guys who really understand how to work.”
The Buckeyes backfield will have its usual array of ball-toting talent this fall, including emerging weapon Curtis Samuel and true freshman Mike Weber among those who can line up behind any one of OSU’s proven quarterbacks, all major running threats in their own right.
But without question, the outlook for the rushing game is blinding primarily because Elliott is revved up for his junior season and projects to be even more dangerous, if that’s possible.
Last year was a breakout season of gridiron-shredding proportions as the 6’0”, 225-pounder raced for 1,878 yards — 696 of them coming at season’s end as the Buckeyes flogged Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and stunned both Alabama and Oregon in the first College Football Playoff.
Taking over the tailback spot admirably for the departed Carlos Hyde, Elliott racked up six 100-yard games in the regular season but apparently was just getting started. He set the tone for the eye-opening postseason with an early 81-yard touchdown gallop against the Badgers. That led to a 220-yard rushing day that paced a 59–0 annihilation of UW.
Elliott topped that performance with 230 yards and two TDs — including a clinching 85-yarder — on just 20 carries in the 42–35 win over No. 1 Alabama. He then destroyed Oregon with 246 yards and four scores to put the Buckeyes on the college football mountaintop.
Afterward, OSU head coach Urban Meyer labeled Elliott a “monster,” but also praised the youngster’s humility.
“I love Zeke because he’s very humble, he comes from a great family, and he understands the offensive line deserves the credit,” Meyer said in the interview room. “However, he’s the most underrated back in America. He’s the most post-contact-yards guy I’ve ever been around, and on top of that he’s a great human being. We get him for at least one more year, so I can’t wait.”
Elliott averaged 6.8 yards per carry and played through all of the grabs and rakes from Oregon defenders. Even when it was clear Elliott was the focal point, the Ducks couldn’t slow him down, let alone stop him. His 36 rushing attempts set a career high.
Elliott capped Ohio State’s final drive of the season with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone. That completed a sophomore season in which he threatened Eddie George’s school-record 1,927 yards set in the Heisman Trophy-winning season of 1995. The St. Louis-area product passed all-time greats Archie Griffin (1,695 in 1974) and Keith Byars (1,764 in 1984) during the Oregon game, and his 246 yards tied the third-best single-game output in OSU history.
It was such a dreamy campaign that it even awed Elliott’s biggest supporter — his father.
“That first long run against Wisconsin, that’s when it really hit me,” says Stacy Elliott. “I had tears in my eyes and remember thinking, ‘Boy, Ezekiel has arrived.’ I was blown away.”
Stacy was an outside linebacker at Missouri, where he met his wife, Dawn, a track standout at the school. Despite their affinity for their alma mater, neither pushed Ezekiel to follow in their footsteps.
“I’ve involved my parents in all my big decisions in life, but they always try to act as a guide for me,” Ezekiel Elliott says. “They never told me to go to school where they went. They wanted me to figure it out for myself.”
Still, Elliott agonized before becoming one of the last to commit to Meyer’s highly rated 2013 recruiting class.
One of Elliott’s many pursuers was Alford, who was still at Notre Dame at the time. The coach says his mouth was agape when watching 2014 OSU game film, although he always expected Elliott would be successful because of his family dynamic.
“When I watched Zeke and his family and they would sit on the couch, his mom would reach over and she would pat him on his knee,” Alford says. “He would turn and hug his dad. He would goof around with his sisters. That shows you they had a lot of admiration and love and respect in that household.”
Further proof that Ezekiel is from good stock: His 16-year-old sister, Lailah, is the John Burroughs High School record holder in the triple jump and an AAU national qualifier in several events, and 9-year-old Aaliyah also is an adept jumper and sprinter.
Still, the genial Ezekiel is an original who marches to a different drummer. He opted for a pink cast after he underwent a second surgery on his left wrist following the season. When the Buckeyes were honored at a Cincinnati Reds game, Elliott vowed to wear a Cardinals cap but instead didn’t attend because he would have missed a class.
Elliott’s flamboyance certainly has been well received. Fans flock to him in public locales. The Columbus Zoo recently named a baby penguin “Zeke” in his honor.
“People have told me they are naming their dogs and even their children after him, so that’s crazy,” Stacy says.
In a recent interview, Dawn described her son as “a bit goofy.” Teammates agree.
“Zeke’s different, but that’s my dude,” safety Vonn Bell says. “I’ll go to war with him every time.”
And when it’s time to make a play ...
“The switch goes on,” Alford says. “And that’s what you want when they click that helmet. You want to see his eyes change. That’s who you want to coach. That’s what I want to coach.”
Elliott gave hints of his explosiveness as a freshman while averaging 8.7 yards per carry. Still, followers of the program paid more attention to hotshot H-back Dontre Wilson of Texas with the belief that he was the key to turning OSU into a big-play offense.
“What a lot of people don’t know is Ezekiel is just as fast as Dontre,” Stacy says.
At John Burroughs High School, Elliott not only toasted football defenders with regularity, but he also captured four state championships in track as a senior by besting the field in the 100-meter dash, 200m, 110m high hurdles and 300m hurdles.
And there’s some grit behind the sizzle.
Elliott actually was sick the entire week of the national championship game. He also played the entire season with a cast and pin implanted into his fractured wrist.
“I couldn’t switch hands; I couldn’t really punch with it,” he says. “I couldn’t really do much. I was pretty handicapped.”
Elliott’s heroic feats and video-game-like production in the College Football Playoff inspired elite recruits such as Weber, a Detroit product, and class of 2016 New Jersey phenom Kareem Walker to commit to Ohio State.
But this fall, the pigskin will go into Elliott’s belly — even if that belly is now covered up due to a new NCAA equipment restriction banning crop tops some are calling “the Elliott Rule.”
“The NCAA has its rules and it’s our job to abide by them,” Elliott says with a wink, even though he signed a petition with more than 10,000 signatures asking the rule to be tossed out.
The day after Ohio State’s spring game, Elliott flew to New York City to attend a ceremony as a finalist for the Sullivan Award. It’s very possible he will return to the Big Apple at the end of the year as a top candidate for another prestigious award — the Heisman Trophy.
“I’m not very surprised by Ezekiel’s success,” his father says, “because he works hard and he doesn’t choke up — he competes. But the Heisman talk and all that kind of stuff, that’s been amazing.”
-by Jeff Rapp, SportsRappUp.com