For Ohio State, the process for replacing departed running back Carlos Hyde last offseason wasn’t complicated. It required patience. It required giving responsibility to several untested young players. Perhaps most of all, it required a big season out of sophomore Ezekiel Elliot, who showed flashes as a true freshman in 2013.
“All the ingredients were there,” said Ed Warinner, the Buckeyes offensive line coach and run-game coordinator. “We just had to wait and see what happened.”
The wait was worth it. Elliott became the program’s leading rusher this fall by running for 1,402 yards with 12 touchdowns, including posting seven 100-yard games. He should be a major piece of the No. 4 Buckeyes’ game plan heading into their Sugar Bowl semifinal matchup with No. 1 Alabama on New Year’s Day. A win would move Ohio State one step closer to its first national title since 2002. It could also add a telling chapter to Elliott’s legacy as the next great Big Ten running back.
Known as “Zeke” to coaches and teammates, Elliott played a small role in an Ohio State offense that ran all over its competition in 2013. The Buckeyes led the nation with an average of 6.8 yards per carry and were one of five teams to average at least 300 rushing yards per game. The departure of Hyde, a senior, was expected, but it created a glaring hole to fill. Hyde played in 40 games during his career and left Columbus with the sixth-most rushing yards (3,198) in program history.
The question mark in Ohio State’s backfield became even more apparent when quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in fall camp. Hyde and Miller combined to average more than 215 rushing yards per game last year. Suddenly, coach Urban Meyer’s offense had to find fill-ins for both, along with breaking in four new starters on the offensive line.
By September it didn’t matter whether Elliott was ready for the spotlight. He had to be. Redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett grabbed many of the headlines as Miller’s understudy, but Elliott’s role in the offense would prove just as vital.
“He was very talented and explosive, but he was obviously young and, playing wise, inexperienced,” Warinner said. “We had to see how he would handle those situations -- the week-to-week grind and the physical stress that puts on you.”
Elliott struggled out of the gate, carrying just 27 times for 141 total yards with two touchdowns during the Buckeyes’ first three games. That included a 32-yard outing in a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, a result that seemed to eliminate Ohio State from championship contention at the time. Meyer’s new-look offense wasn’t clicking, and it wasn’t just Elliott's experience growing pains; Barrett threw three interceptions against the Hokies.
Then, on Sept. 27 against Cincinnati, Elliott showcased his potential. He rushed 28 times for 182 yards in a 50-28 rout, a coming-out performance that left quite an impression on Meyer. It was the kind of production the coach expected from a player with college football in his bloodline; Elliott’s father, Stacy, was a defensive back for Missouri in the 1990s. “We have a lot of confidence in Ezekiel Elliott,” Meyer told reporters after the game. “I think before he leaves here, he could be one of the great backs of Ohio State.”
In 2012 Elliott had shined as a prep star at John Burroughs (Mo.) High, where he amassed more than 3,000 all-purpose yards and 50 touchdowns as a senior. Two years later, he has transformed into a Big Ten workhorse. He scored eight of his 12 touchdowns and notched five 100-yard games during the season’s final seven contests. At Michigan State on Nov. 8, he rushed for 154 yards with two scores to help Ohio State take control of the conference race. Coaches thought they had a stud in Elliott as a freshman, but he blossomed into a star as a sophomore.
“When J.T. Barrett started to establish himself as a threat running, and those four new offensive linemen started to get game reps, the combination of those two things opened up opportunities for Ezekiel Elliott to have the year that he’s had,” said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who played quarterback at Ohio State from 1989-93. “By the end of the year, he started to be somewhat reminiscent to what we saw a year ago from Carlos Hyde.”
Now, Elliott is hoping to do something Hyde couldn’t: Help Ohio State win a national title. Earlier this month Elliott spurred the team to a 59-0 demolition of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 6. He outshined Badgers tailback Melvin Gordon, the eventual Heisman Trophy runner-up, by finishing with a league title-game record 220 rushing yards. That broke the mark set by Gordon two years ago.
In many ways, Elliott is becoming a fan favorite among the Buckeyes faithful. He spurned the option of signing with Missouri to build his own legacy in Columbus. He wears his jersey rolled up, exposing his stomach, which is similar to former program great Eddie George. (Elliott says he simply doesn’t like the length.) The numbers are adding up, too. Elliott’s 1,402 rushing yards this season rank 11th on the school’s all-time list.
“It means a lot,” Elliott told reporters last week. “All the great running backs that have come through here -- the running back pedigree is ridiculous. It’s kind of crazy to think about it, but I’ve got to thank my O-line. They’ve paved the way.”
Nothing would earn Elliott more recognition than to spark an upset of Alabama. The Crimson Tide boast one of the country’s most ferocious front sevens and allow just 2.81 yards per carry. Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones -- the third-stringer who was thrust into the lineup after Barrett fractured his ankle against Michigan on Nov. 29 -- will make his second career start. That means Elliott’s number could be called often for a program hoping to reverse the Big Ten’s recent postseason futility. Since Ohio State lost to Florida 41-14 in the BCS title game after the 2006 campaign, the conference is 19-35 in bowl games.
But Elliott doesn’t seem afraid of Alabama, or of the burden on his shoulders. In fact, he sounds eager to embrace the next step in his breakout campaign.
“January 1st can’t come soon enough,” Elliott tweeted on Dec. 1.