The running back position requires an athlete to possess several traits for success. One of the crucial ones is competitive drive. The ability to initiate contact with defenders typically much bigger in size, keep your feet churning to break tackles and extend plays is key to turning a five yard gain into eight yards. This trait is even more crucial in short yardage situations where your team needs a few inches on the goal line for a touchdown or first down. One of the most promising prospects in this area is Ohio State junior Ezekiel Elliott, a running back that also possesses the athleticism and durability needed to excel at the pro level.
Elliott was unveiled as the Buckeyes feature back for the first time in 2014, replacing current 49er Carlos Hyde. He flourished in coach Urban Meyer's revamped offense, a scheme that was a departure from his spread days in Florida. The attack focused more on inside zone blocking plays and power runs up the middle. While many hear 'zone blocking' and immediately equate it with running backs avoiding contact and seeking consistent three-to-four yard gains, that wasn't the case with Elliot. He was a physical runner that used his strength after contact to wear down defenses and eventually break big gains in the later stages of the game.
What he did
The offense involved a lot of cutting off the center up the middle, and Elliot proved very good at this up-the-gut style of running. The sophomore ended up rushing for 1,878 yards, a number that trailed only Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman. Elliot finished the season with 20 rushing touchdowns and also added 28 catches for 220 yards (7.9 yards per catch average). He was Top 5 in several rushing categories for the Big Ten, including rushing attempts, rushing yards, touchdowns, and plays from scrimmage.
When looking at Elliott, he's got several characteristics that make him a potentially good runner at the pro level.
Biggest strengths: Functional strength, competitive toughness, finishes runs after contact, mental toughness, vision
Biggest weaknesses: Pass blocking, home run speed, elusiveness
What kind of player is he
At 6'1, Elliott is a little taller than your average running back and has a thick frame at 225 lbs, giving him an NFL-like weight despite being only a junior in college. He shows good quickness when diagnosing a play both physically and mentally, and has the agility to cut off center and between the tackles. His balance is very good and allows him to continue running downhill after contact. A hard-nose runner, Elliot saw his most successful runs come in between the tackle and tight end on inside zone plays with the Buckeyes.
A typical Elliot run
He shows good burst getting to the line of scrimmage with good lateral quickness to cut off inside blocks. He's patient when waiting for his blocks to set up and cuts up field decisively and without losing speed. He has the vision to run off blocks at the second level and stands a good chance to break off a big run if he sheds a tackle or two.
He also has the speed to beat defenders to the edge and get up field. His transition from a 45 degree angle to north-and-south is fluid, and he maintains a good forward lean when running which keeps him from running too tall. He also keeps his feet churning after contact which allows him to pop defenders backward upon contact and gain extra yards in combination with his strength at 225lbs. He struggles when trying to run for long touchdowns as his lack of top-end speed often results in him getting tackled from behind by corners and safeties.
Elliott has only managed to string together a stellar season just once, an obvious thing to write but still important considering teams will be gunning for him more in 2015. Though he'll have a sign on his back, he's already battle-tested when it comes to playing against the best teams in college. He posted four touchdowns and 246 yards rushing against Oregon in the National Championship game. He also ran for 230 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama, a team ranked fourth in points allowed (16.6) in 2014. It's important when any athlete plays his best against the toughest of defenses, and Elliot demonstrated he could do that.
He could also wear defenses down throughout a game, as his biggest runs typically came in the second half when Ohio State needed a breakthrough play to seal a victory.
Elliott accomplished all this despite playing with three different quarterbacks and capped his year off with a 246 yard performance in the National Championship game against Oregon to go along with a season-high four touchdowns. He proved he could remain durable with 273 attempts and no injuries.
Pass blocking woes
Elliott's biggest weakness is his pass blocking. He typically stands too high when engaging defenders which allows him to get driven back by pass rushers. He lacks the desire to pass block and will throw his shoulder in at times instead of squaring up the defender. He does, however, display a desire to run block and relished the opportunity to hit linebackers in the middle of the field on quarterback keepers. That will be something to take notice of if he hopes to elevate his status to potential first-round draft pick either in 2016 or 2017.
Catching the ball
Elliott can definitely make tough catches. He posted a seven catch game against Indiana and three games with at least four receptions. He's not expected to catch the ball a ton in the Buckeyes' offense, but it's a skill he's proven to have.
What type of NFL player can he be
Overall, Elliott is a very good power runner that can move piles with his strength after contact. He has the potential to be a 1,000-yard rusher in an offense that values running the ball up the middle and with the inside zone. A team that runs the inside zone quite a bit is the Philadelphia Eagles. This offense would be ideal for a player like Elliot. He still needs to develop his pass blocking, but he has a good chance of going in the first round based on his running talent alone.