"It's not really tough to be patient, because when I go out there it's just a privilege to be back with the guys," explains the third-year sophomore running back. "Because a lot of people didn't think I was going to come back, so I feel it's just a privilege to be with them."
So strong is this feeling that while a teammate or two might complain—quietly of course—about the intensity of this summer's workout regimen, there won't be any discouraging words from Elliott. He's spent too much time working his own way back from that September evening in Baton Rouge when a knee injury interrupted a most promising Bulldog career. And there is yet more re-hab time ahead before he's fully-ready and completely-cleared to take practice contact. Fortunately that time should run out by August and Elliott be ready to resume competing for his place in the 2009 offense.
As of now, "I'd say I'm around 85-90%," Elliott reports. Which actually might be just a bit ahead of normal ligament-repair recovery schedule since the second surgery in December. "It's a pretty fast pace, but I'm not trying to rush it, I'm just trying to take my time."
Such self-control might seem odd for a fellow who has made a career of going fast and moving quickly. But he's getting as much time as necessary from this new coaching staff, not just to bring him up to complete recovery but also to figure where he can then bring the most production to the gameplan. While far from a final assignment, one of the most interesting aspects of spring training was seeing Elliott spend at least as many practice days with the wide receivers as he did the backs. One obvious reason was that here he was far less likely to take the wrong sort of contact in drills.
Yet equally, these coaches like what a small, speedy back can do when lined up in different spots. Or slots, rather. For his part Elliott said it was like being a kid with a new toy.
"Oh, I liked it. Like I told guys, whatever role they want me to play I'll play it. I never played receiver in high school." Not surprisingly since there was no need to take an All-State runner out of the backfield at that level. College, now, is another matter; and the spread-system favored by Coach Dan Mullen a whole ‘nother way of putting the ball in a play-maker's mitts. Thus, all those practice snaps with Elliott trotting five, ten, twenty yards outside the nearest lineman and pointing downfield.
"But on some of my plays the running back lines up in the slot," Elliott clarifies. "That's what most of the plays they put me in. And really just let me run go-routes because they didn't really want me doing any cuts, that's pretty much what it was." Not to mention protecting this recovering kid from careless contact. It almost worked, too, except…
"I did take a hit," Elliott says. "Chris White, he didn't know! I had a regular jersey on so he didn't know." Whether it was the linebacker's own aggression or just that he was a first-semester guy in camp, that lick produced some breath-catching on the spring sidelines. "But it was a good thing," Elliott says. "I'm glad it happened because I took the hit and realized it wasn't nothing, I got back up. So I'm glad I went on and got that over with!"
At the same time Dog defenders will have to be a bit more careful early in August camp, until given the go-ahead to knock #2 down. Not that Elliot is eager; in fact he credits much of his success as a ball-carrier to his aversion to contact. Sure he's fast; of course he's quick; and after two years at State he's getting distinctly stronger with 195 well-distributed pounds on his 6-0 frame.
And for all the work as a pass-catcher, make no mistake: Elliott intends to be a useful weapon in Mississippi State's backfield arsenal. Anthony Dixon is big and powerful; Christian Ducre a good mix of strength and smarts; and hopefully Arnil Stallworth can come back from his March knee injury to bring his moves and hands. Elliott?
"I'm a different type of runner," he says. "All those guys are good because I think they're underrated a little bit on their speed. But I just go out and I can make people miss." And lest we assume further that this is a special gift, well, Elliott might acknowledge some of that…but mostly "I really don't want to get hit!
"I mean, either you've got it or you don't. Give them a head fake, if they don't go for it try to give another. And if not just lower my shoulder and try to get what I can."
Elliott took what little playing time he was given in 2008, as with proven pounders like Dixon and Ducre in the lineup even a talented redshirt had to wait for turns. He ran five times against Southeastern Louisiana, didn't play against Auburn, then got a chance to show some moves at Georgia Tech after that game was far out of reach. Nine carries netted 36 yards including a six-yard burst up the middle for his first college touchdown and State's only score of the afternoon.
"I was excited about that, the start of something." A week later with State giving LSU a good scrap in Baton Rouge it was Elliott getting another red zone chance. But in the pileup, with no room to move and be missed, something went badly wrong. "When I first took the hit to the knee everything went numb and I really couldn't feel it. So I thought it was a sprain, they were telling me it might just be a sprain. But after a while when I got on the airplane I was like man, this can't be a sprain because it hurts too bad!"
Two ligaments were torn and his debut season done after just a month. "It hurt my pride a whole lot, because I had sat-out my whole freshman year and I really wanted to play that year. Just when I'm getting in the game and starting to get my feet wet a little bit I went down. So that hurt my pride pretty bad. But I'm back right now."
Back after separate operations—which worked but also lengthened his re-hab for almost two months. Elliott began spring in the ‘bike park' by the practice field, grinding out mythical miles until it was his turn to do some drills. He wasn't alone; fellow recovering Dog Brandon McRae also rode the stationary bike prior to practicing and Elliott says the elder offered some motivation.
"But he talks way, way more than I do! Some days I wanted to say shut up, I'm working, but he isn't ever going to be quiet!" Fortunately after a week Elliott was able to go through more drills, including with his backfield mates working on handoffs, steps, timing, ball protection, everything but contact. And this eased one obvious worry.
"I don't feel anything in the knee," Elliott says. "I really try not to think about it but I don't feel anything." Instead, what this Dog feels is genuine gratitude that he can resume real practicing soon and is very much in Mississippi State's 2009 schemes.
"It makes me appreciate it a whole lot more. I always looked at it as I was going to be out there. But since I got hurt, I got to sit down and look at some things. And it made me appreciate more just being out there with the guys."
Guys that, it must be added, Elliott will test his best moves against come August. He's been told to add three more pounds before then, and spend as many July afternoons as possible working with the quarterbacks on routes, timing, and catching. "And getting stronger," he adds.
"There wasn't ever any doubt in my mind I was coming back. Now it's time for me to get going."