No. 1: Ezekiel Elliott
Jersey No.: 15
High School: St. Louis John Burroughs
Rating: Four-star prospect in the 2013 class
Career stats: During his true freshman season in 2013, Elliott showed glimpses of what was to come. He carried the ball 30 times for 262 yards, an average of 8.7 yards per carry, Elliott scored twice on the ground and once through the air. His breakout campaign came one year later. As a sophomore, Elliott ran for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns while also adding 220 receiving yards.
Playmaking skills: Speed, vision, power, receiving ability
What They’re Saying: All you need to know about Ezekiel Elliott’s value heading into his junior season is that Tony Alford might still be living in South Bend, Ind., if it weren’t for Elliott.
Ohio State’s new running backs coach didn’t choose to leave Notre Dame solely because of the chance to coach Elliott, but working with one of the country’s best running backs certainly didn’t hurt.
“I don’t know, is it pretty easy to drive a Lexus?” Alford deadpanned during a spring interview. “In all seriousness it certainly helped. It helped to come in and have great players all around and guys that understand how to work. I’ve been very fortunate in my career, everywhere I’ve been I’ve had guys that will work hard and the game’s important to them. But like I said, coming in to a situation like this, it’s a great situation for me personally.”
After signing with Ohio State as a four-star running back, Elliott showed during his true freshman season that he belonged as the odds-on favorite to replace Carlos Hyde. He only received 30 carries but made the most of them, rushing for nearly nine yards a carry. That momentum carried over into the offseason and Elliott won the starting job.
A wrist injury during fall camp set him back, but it didn’t show on the field. Elliott rushed for more than 1,800 yards and was electric during Ohio State’s three postseason games. After battering Wisconsin for 220 yards and two touchdowns in the Big Ten title game, Elliott finished the Sugar Bowl with 230 yards and two touchdowns. He capped off the incredible run by amassing 246 yards and four touchdowns in the CFP National Championship win against Oregon.
A second surgery after the season put Elliott, who played last fall while concealing a cast on his left wrist, on the road to recovery. He sat out all 15 spring practices, but the Ohio State coaching staff feels he’ll be able to come back better than ever this fall. Now, opponents have to worry about facing Elliott when he’s rested and able to consistently deploy a stiff arm.
“There's nothing I'd want more than to have a healthy wrist because it's been broken for the past eight months, and it gets hard not being able to come out here and practice with my boys, having to be on the sideline doing my own thing,” Elliott said.
He’ll enter the 2015 season as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner after his dominant postseason play. He’s already shown the ability to appeal to voters, having won the AAU Sullivan Award in April as the nation’s best amateur athlete.
“I just feel blessed to be in this opportunity,” Elliott said. “It's something that Coach Meyer told me – he didn't promise me, but he told me it was possible if I came to Ohio State. He said we could win a national championship, we're going to kiss the crystal football. It wasn't the crystal football, we kissed the gold national championship trophy. Being able to compete for the Heisman, it's surreal. It's a blessing and I can't do anything but thank God and my boys for giving me the opportunity to experience all this.”
And as for the Heisman talk? He’s running at the expectations instead of away from them. If he could, he’d bet on himself.
“I think it would be a good one,” he said with a smile.