It didn’t take long for Ohio State fans to put a two-game losing streak in the rearview mirror. Braxton Miller returned, Larry Johnson and Chris Ash were hired and a top-five recruiting class is weeks from being completed. An early look to 2014 indicates the Buckeyes should be in the mix for a spot in the inaugural four-team playoff.
Of course, that comes with a but. There are four new offensive linemen, linebacker remains an issue, the secondary will break in several new starters, oh, and Carlos Hyde is gone. Hyde saved his best for last, rushing for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.
An effortless argument can be made that Hyde was the team’s MVP. Without him, chances are Ohio State doesn’t even get to the Big Ten Championship Game with an unblemished record. Now, it’s forced to find a replacement to complement an offense that’s not expected to let up.
The list of candidates is lengthy – Ezekiel Elliott, Dontre Wilson Warren Ball, Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn – but it’s that first name, Elliott, that sticks out. Wilson has the glitz and speed, and Ball, Smith and Dunn possess a combination of power and speed; however, Elliott’s freshman season gave way to heightened expectations.
He totaled 285 yards of offense – 262 rushing – and three touchdowns. Elliott averaged nearly nine yards per carry and rushed for 162 yards on 14 attempts against Florida A&M. Recruiters tagged him with four stars and a top-50 ranking, which saddled him with high expectations and pressure. Nothing new for Division I football players, but he exceeded them in Year 1.
“I think we are all excited for the 2014 season, especially since 2013 did not end the way we would have liked,” Elliott’s mother, Dawn, told Eleven Warriors. “As far as my son starting, I’m really not sure about that. It is no secret that the Ohio State running back room is filled with talent, and there is even a new guy added to the mix [H-back Curtis Samuel]. Ezekiel just needs to stay humble, focused, and healthy. God willing, he will earn more playing time in the backfield.”
Elliott spent a bulk of the season as the second-string back behind Hyde, though he only received one carry the last five games and none in the final three. Still, that doesn’t stop the momentum Elliott conjured up during 2013.
“I just came here to compete,” Elliott said. “I didn’t come out here to get an easy ride. I know to get on the field I have to work my hardest.”
The goal entering last season was to find the field and make his talents noticeable to coaches. It definitely worked. Aside from galloping down the field, Elliott also impacted special teams with several bone-jarring hits. He recorded four tackles.
“I just came here to compete. I didn’t come out here to get an easy ride. I know to get on the field I have to work my hardest.”
One of those received national attention – a collision with a Purdue player that prompted a Boilermaker cheerleader to smile and laugh. The play was featured on Monday Night Football’s “C’mon Man” segment.
“We were ready for it,” Elliott said. “It felt pretty good.”
He added eight pounds of muscle to his 6-foot frame in the couple months he was on campus prior to the season. Even his parents were taken aback by the improvements in his arms and neck.
It’s no surprise that Elliott displays an elite brand of athleticism. His father, Stacy, played football at Missouri; his mother, Dawn, ran track for the Tigers and was the Des Moines Register’s 1990 female high school athlete of the year; and his grandfather, Leon Huff, played basketball at Drake and professionally in Europe.
In high school, Elliott was a three-sport star – football, basketball and track. Coached by former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte, Elliott helped the John Burroughs High School football team to three consecutive state title games, and he won four Missouri track and field state championships as a senior. That same year, Elliott was the state’s offensive player of the year and track athlete of the year.
“Ezekiel has loved baseballs, footballs and basketballs his entire life,” Dawn said. “If he couldn’t find a ball to play with, then he would ball up some socks and throw around a ball of socks when he was three or four.”
At 13, Elliott quit baseball to try his hand – or legs – at track. He qualified for the Junior Olympics and placed eighth in the 100-meter hurdles. Dawn said his Little League coach, who instructed Elliott in football, basketball and baseball, still believes his best sport is baseball.
Elliott’s parents are just fine with how things have turned out. They admit recruiting was an overly stressful time, but now all’s well at Ohio State. Dawn even said the anxiety that accompanied the final three games of the season didn’t compare with recruiting.
As happy as Elliott was with his first season, his parents may have been more thrilled with their maiden year in Big Ten.
“The Buckeye parents are a wonderful group, and Buckeye Nation is undoubtedly the best fan base in the country,” Dawn said. “The parents have a tailgate before every game, home and away. I have a group of new friends, and a few of us actually communicate on a daily basis. Nothing can compare to the game-day atmosphere in Columbus in the fall.
“I absolutely love it.”
The adoration could grow even more if Elliott approaches Hyde’s lofty stats. The latter rushed for more than 100 yards in nine straight games, becoming the first Meyer-coached running back to eclipse 1,000 yards. Of course, Elliott’s work will be done behind a reconstructed offensive line.
“I just have to keep working,” he said.
[Kirk Irwin Photography]