Derrick Henry, the 6-3, 247-pound monster out of Alabama, wasn’t at the NFL Combine podium for long before the inevitable was finally pointed out.
Henry is the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner and is coming off a national championship, but he’s not viewed by many as a first-round talent and nobody has him as the top running back available in the draft.
That honor belongs to Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, who was himself a national champion in 2014 but on an individual level never won so much as a first-team All-American spot during his time in Columbus.
So what gives? And is Henry bothered by being a Heisman winner projected more in the 40-50 range while Elliott is viewed as a lock to be taken in the first half of the first round?
“No, not at all,” Henry said. “I approach the situation as an underdog and working my way up. And that’s how I approach every day since I’ve been training, just trying to get better every day and get ready to go out and compete.”
Elliott, for his part, was much more terse when asked about his counterpart at Alabama.
“I really haven't studied any of the other running backs,” he said, quickly turning his head to look for other questions.
But the truth remains that Elliott’s draft stock is unquestionably better than Henry’s, and the reasoning isn’t too difficult to uncover. Elliott’s blocking ability was well known among Ohio State fans, but the rest of the country is getting an introduction to the nation’s most well-rounded running back at the NFL Combine.
Elliott, whose blocking style was described by J.T. Barrett as “chopping guys like a cherry tree,” has generated the most consistently positive praise at the NFL Combine and has his draft stock pointed directly upwards.
His effort has earned him praise from teammates, and fellow projected first-rounder Taylor Decker wasn’t shy about dishing out praise to Elliott when asked about him during his media interview in Indianapolis.
“He was just fun to block for,” Decker said. “I’d say the No. 1 thing was regardless of what he was doing on a play, he was going to go full speed. I’ve said it a bunch of times before but some of my favorite plays of him were of him blocking people or cutting people. He’s going a million miles an hour and whoever is ahead of him is going to get hit. He loves it. He always talks about how he wishes he could be a lineman. He’s kind of got that mentality and attitude. You appreciate a guy who gives you some love.”
It turns out Elliott’s toughness in the sport got started at an early age. Although he was an acclaimed sprinter as a youngster, his earliest spot on the gridiron didn’t come at running back thanks to his size advantage over his peers.
“When I first started playing football I was a fullback,” he said. “My first job was to block.
“When you're 7 you run a wishbone, so fullback is a fullback, but he's not really a true I fullback. I was one of the bigger guys who could run, so he played me at fullback. That was just my first year of football. After that I got moved to halfback.”
Although he came to Ohio State as one of the most coveted recruits in the country, Elliott spent most of his true freshman year behind Carlos Hyde. In the year in which Hyde became the first Urban Meyer-coached running back to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, Elliott finished fifth on the team with 262 rushing yards on 30 carries.
The fastest way to see the field in Columbus is through special teams, but developing as a blocker isn’t far behind. A year of adjustment to the college level sparked Elliott to develop himself into a more complete player.
“When I first got to Ohio State I realized I wasn't going to be the biggest or fastest guy,” Elliott said. “I was only 17 playing with a bunch of 22- and 21-year old guys, so I was trying to find something that would set me apart. And that day I realized it was just effort. Not everyone is willing to go out there and play with a lot of effort. And blocking is another thing that running backs aren't really willing to do. That's a part of my game. I really made it important to me to become very good at.
“That definitely was probably my biggest challenge going into college, learning the blitz pickup. In high school all you do is slide protections. Once you get to college you've got these different man protections you have to know, you have to read the safeties, when are you going to get pressure? That was tough. But after freshman year getting all those reps, I think I mastered it pretty good by my sophomore season.”
Elliott finished his sophomore season with 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns on 273 attempts. His big-play ability served as the springboard to Ohio State’s national championship, but it’s what he does without the ball that developed him into a complete player who is viewed as the top overall player at his position.
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