Ezekiel Elliott is a Heisman favorite this upcoming season, and for good reason. The running back polished off the 2014-15 season by gutting Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon for a total of 696 yards in the three biggest games of his life. Given that he enters the upcoming season behind a veteran offensive line, fully healthy, and cemented as Ohio State's feature running back, it's no wonder some are even going as far as to suggest he could have a 3,000 yard season.
His gaudy rushing statistics might be what wins him national awards, but they don't quite tell the whole story of why he's on virtually every NFL draft board as first or second round talent. It's his willingness to be physical without the ball in his hands that truly sets him apart.
"Watch Zeke Elliott play when he doesn’t have the football, that’s the key component for me," said running backs coach Tony Alford when he talked to the media for the first time after joining the Ohio State staff. "Listen, you can give me the ball — I’m 46 years old and fat — you give me the ball I’ll run as fast as I can, as hard as I can because I’ve got the ball in my hands. But what am I doing when I don’t have it? Am I running 20 yards down the field throwing a block for a guy they threw to the back side receiver?"
Zeke is. Watch him run up field and look to block for Devin Smith after he makes the catch. The average running back gives up on this play after selling the fake hand-off.
Alford was not the first to dish out praise to Elliott for his blocking. Taylor Decker, an expert at the art of body-moving, said of the running back: "watch him play without the ball; some of his best plays you could say are plays he makes without the ball. He kind of has an offensive lineman's mindset but he plays running back.”
Both Alford and Decker stressed that to truly evaluate Elliott and see what all he brings to the table, we need to watch what he does without the football in his hands. So that's exactly what we did.
Our first glimpse of Ezekiel Elliott's rather aggressive play-style came came not from a physical run, or even a block, but from a special teams tackle.
While this appeared at the time to just be a fluke play that will end up on a few YouTube "Biggest Football Hit" videos and nothing more, it was actually foreshadowing the rest of his career. As displayed by this tackle, Ezekiel Elliott is a violent football player. He does not shy away from contact, nor does he attempt to minimize it — he initiates it. Apply this mentality to blocking, and you get this:
Look at Elliott's head — he identified the blitz pre-snap, likely even before J.T. Barrett. Then at the snap, instead of setting his feet and waiting for the blitzer to make contact, he attacks, knocking the blitzing linebacker backwards and giving Barrett time to throw. Perhaps the most impressive part is that he doesn't stop there — he immediately gets to his feet and continues driving the defender backwards. To me, this is one of, if not the most impressive play of his Buckeye career.
This is not an isolated incident either. Elliott consistently gives enormous effort as a pass blocker, often times stopping linemen and linebackers much larger than him right in their tracks. Here are a few examples of what he does on just about every passing down:
The running back's blocking efforts are not limited to pass blocking in the backfield either. His apparent fondness for contact makes him quite an effective run blocker as well. Our first glimpse of Elliott's lead blocking efforts came during his freshman year on a Braxton Miller scramble against Illinois.
Here Elliott shows the same aggressive, never-give-up mentality he displays as a rusher, only he doesn't have the ball in his hands. This is a play that was not designed to be a run play, nor was Elliott designed to be a lead blocker. He could have easily hung back behind the play and not much negative would have been said of it. But instead, he rushes up-field to throw a few blocks, springing Braxton Miller for about 10 more yards.
Again, this was just hinting at what was to come. Here are a few of his better lead blocking efforts from this past season (Note: Some of these scenes are violent in nature. Viewer discretion is advised):
Where exactly did this aggressive play-style come from? According to Elliott, it's always been there. Via John Kampf of The Morning Journal:
“I started off my football career as a fullback,” Elliott pointed out. “Not something I was too shy to do. I like to hit. I’m not afraid of contact. Blocking is something I definitely take pride in.”
As good as he's been, Ezekiel Elliott is far from a finished product. There are still areas that need work — the timing of his cut blocks, his blocking technique, and overall consistency — but that can all be taught. Elliott already possesses and displays the intangible mentality needed to become an elite blocker out of the backfield. Expect him to improve even further in that area this upcoming season, especially now that he can use both hands.
So when you're watching the games this fall, don't take your eyes off Ezekiel Elliott just because it isn't a running play, you might miss out on some of his best highlights. One thing is for certain about this Buckeye running back: he's violent. He will run people over — with or without the ball in his hands.