Ezekiel Elliott has been the metronome for the Ohio State offense this season. Whenever the unit has started to miss a beat, the junior running back has been there to steer the offense back, keeping the unit in time.
There have been inconsistencies in pass blocking, the quarterback carousel and injuries, but through it all, Elliott has not wavered once.
“We’re certainly not in this situation without Zeke,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said of the team’s 10-0 record after Saturday’s 28-3 win over Illinois. “There is some issues, the back-and-forth at quarterback, but he’s the one constant.”
Rather than it being an intangible concept, the consistency of Elliott’s production is quantifiable by way of his nation-leading 15 consecutive games of over 100 yards rushing, dating back to last season. It’s this mark of consistency that elevates him into an elite category.
“That’s again what makes him different than a lot of people,” running backs coach Tony Alford said. “There aren’t the highs and the lows. When he comes to play, he comes to play, no matter who it is and where it’s at.”
Elliott burst onto the college football scene during OSU’s three postseason games, rushing for over 200 yards and at least two touchdowns in each contest. He has been highly touted since then, as many regarded him as a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy going into the season. He solidified his place among the nation’s best on his first carry of the 2015 season: an 80-yard touchdown against Virginia Tech.
For Alford, he doesn’t think Elliott should just be mentioned as one of the best; he thinks the junior owns that crown.
“I’m biased, mind you, but you’re looking at a guy that I believe is the best player in the country,” Alford said.
And it’s because of this that Alford finds himself in a predicament.
With Elliott’s unrivaled ability, Alford said he has trouble balancing how many reps the St. Louis native should be getting in games while getting the proper amount of rest. When Elliott’s on the field, defenses have to account for the many ways he can impact the game, which is why Alford has trouble striking the right balance.
Even though Alford isn’t the play-caller, the decision is up to him, and the coach admits that Elliott has maybe been playing a little too much. But Alford said Elliott is a good communicator, so it makes his job a little easier.
“He’s pretty good about telling me how he feels, especially throughout the week,” Alford said, adding that if Elliott does alert him of any fatigue, the coaching staff backs off his reps.
Through 10 games, he is averaging 24 touches — including 22 carries — per game, which is a pretty heavy workload. But even so, as long as it doesn’t affect his health, the other players love having him out there as much as possible for all of the different ways he impacts the game.
“When he’s popping out six, eight, nine yards, on first and second down, that’s what you love,” redshirt sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett said.
But it isn’t just on rushing attempts. Despite being able to make guys miss with his agility or blast through them with his power or dart by them with his speed, arguably Elliott’s most important contribution to the offense is when the ball is not in his hand.
On Barrett’s six-yard touchdown run against Illinois, the quarterback took the snap and sprinted out to his left. Elliott was out ahead and dove at the legs of an Illini defender, knocking the player to the ground and allowing Barrett to waltz across the goal line without being touched.
“The huge thing that separates him from anybody is the way he plays without the ball in his hands and with it in his hands, is the exact same,” senior left tackle Taylor Decker said. “He’s going full-speed, 100 percent, nobody wants to take a hit from him.”
Decker jokingly said that based on the blocks that Elliott routinely throws, the running back might have missed his calling on the gridiron.
“He should’ve been an offensive lineman,” he said laughing.
Except, he isn’t.
He’s a running back, a potential first-round pick and a Heisman trophy candidate, and, possibly, one of the best to ever don scarlet and gray. After his performance against Illinois, Elliott moved into third all-time in career rushing yards for OSU with 3,565.
When considering it all — the blocks, the catches out of the backfield and the explosive runs — Meyer said the decision is easy when it comes to whom he wants on his team.
“I know if I had my choice of any tailback in the country,” he said, “I’ve got mine.”