"I mean, it's kind of good to lead the group a little bit," Elliott said following a tough morning practice—not coincidentally focused upon running the ball—and before climbing into the cold-tub. Coach Dan Mullen and the offensive coaching staff are very serious about expanding the Mississippi State ground game here in year-two, which means a larger role for every tailback on the roster.
After all, there are a lot more carries to go around in 2010 with the departure of a certain All-SEC ground pounder. Even if Anthony Dixon has hauled his game to the NFL, well, "We're not going to shy away from running the football this year," Mullen said.
That sounds good to Elliott, who has certainly waited long enough for his turn to tote. Some of the delay was expected as the Okolona star joined a roster already featuring veteran backs. More dramatic was the injury-interruption he suffered midway of the 2008 season when he left a goal-line pileup at Tiger Stadium with two torn knee ligaments. Elliott did rejoin the varsity last fall with 221 yards on 44 carries in, usually, reserve action. Whether it was running rust, trying to make up for lost spring-time learning the new system, or trying to do too much each attempt there was something a little off with his tailback timing.
Because he showed no issues or hesitations in his other work, as part of State's special teams. Elliott even was right man/right place in the Auburn game when he scooped up the punt blocked by backfield mate Patrick Hanrahan and took it to the end zone. That was his second college touchdown, to go with a 15-yard scamper at Georgia Tech in mop-up duty the week before his knee was wrecked.
The encouraging word now is that ten days into this preseason Elliott feels he is back up to his old pace. Maybe even better. "Oh, I feel real good about my speed. I trained with Coach Balis and we worked in it all during the off-season, so I feel real good about it right now." With reason because in public practices Elliott was moving much more fluidly than last fall, reading the steps as coached and making the moves. That's another sort of progress for Elliott, too, because after all he came to college as a fast back looking to avoid contact.
Now? While making a miss-move is still ideal, if necessary the 215-pound Elliott will square up and give as good a contact as he takes. Even the body looks different, with more muscle moved up in the chest and shoulders an not an ounce of obvious flab to be seen.
"I mean, the strength coach knows what he's doing. He put the weight on me and I feel good about it. And I'm just as fast. Or faster."
Elliott does need to move fast this fall because there are some other runners coming on quickly themselves, with no respect for senior…make that, juniority. Juco back Vick Ballard was signed to play immediately and has shown an all-round game in spring and August work. LaDarius Perkins sat out his first campus fall but has dashed into the camp spotlight with a combination of quick burst on the ball and sharp moves in traffic. Both are looking like capable pass-catchers, too, something Elliott has done a little of for-real himself and is improving for 2010. And true frosh Nick Griffin plays a whole lot stouter than his listed size.
The more, the merrier for Mississippi State is how Elliott sees the camp contests.
"Yes, sir, I like the competition. All the guys bring different things. Vick is a solid running back. Perkins is a fast guy, probably one of the fastest guys on the team. The young guy, Nick, he's strong, powerful guy with very good moves. We all just bring different things to the table." Which is where, asked what he provides this gameplan, Elliott mentions age, experience… "And a mix of a little bit of everything."
One of those everythings that still stands in need of preseason polishing is backfield blocking, something Elliott—or for that matter most talented runners—rarely had to do in high school. Three years later Elliott might not threaten Hanrahan or Sylvester Hemphill for Top Dog Backfield Blocker, but he's improving. And after all, familiarity with how Mullen and staff want to play the game is a great aid in all aspects.
"I feel like being in the program I know the system," Elliott says. " Practice is going good, we're just coming out, going hard every day, getting a lot of fundamentals down. Right now we're just trying to get our job done."
Thursday was a single-practice date for the Dogs, with Mullen scheduled to talk to media at 2:30.