Given the success both had as first-year players -- especially that of Gurley -- it’s no real surprise to hear two running backs being debated once again as potential first-round picks. This time around it’s Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott.
Both are outstanding runners between the tackles. Both played at one of the nation’s top programs for one of the nation’s top coaches. Both won National Championships. And both were in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy at the start of the year.
That’s where Henry has the advantage, having won the top award in college football for his sterling 2015 -- 395 carries, 2,219 yards rushing, 28 touchdowns.
But bring up Henry to Elliott and the response is fairly curt.
And there’s reason enough for it. Elliott’s play stands out on its own, and is reason enough for him to be considered a potential first-round pick irrespective of comparisons. He rushed 289 times for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2015. If you add in his receptions, he totaled 2,027 yards from scrimmage in his final season at Ohio State. That goes up to 4,125 yards from scrimmage and 41 touchdowns if you add up his last two years as a Buckeye.
Friday, he recorded a 32.5-inch vertical jump, 118-inch broad jump, and a 4.47-second 40-yard dash as part of the NFL Combine’s on-field workouts.
So when the running back said he was trying to stay focused on what he could control -- which does not include where he may end up -- it’s makes sense as a line. But his competitive nature came through when he talked about being able to provide plenty of value for a first-round pick.
“I think I’m going to be a guy that’s going to come in and work hard from Day 1,” Elliott said. “And I think I’m a guy who brings a lot of versatility to the position. I’m a guy who can play all three downs. And I think I excel in all areas of the game.”
“I value blocking more than anything,” he said.
Part of that comes from his first football position: fullback. Running the wishbone offense as a seven year old, Elliott said he got his start in football by blocking. Then once he turned eight, Elliott transitioned to half back and the rest is history.
But he still had to gain an edge once he reached the college level.
“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, 21-year-old guys. So I was just trying to find something to set me apart. And that thing, I realized, was just effort.
“Not everyone is willing to go out there and play with a lot of effort,” Elliott continued. “And blocking is another thing that running backs aren’t really willing to do. So that’s a part of my game I really made important to me to become very good at.”
According to Elliott’s OSU teammate, offensive tackle Taylor Decker, Elliott was successful in that endeavor.
“He was just fun to block for because I would say the No. 1 thing is, regardless of what he was doing on a play, he was going to go full speed,” Decker said this week. “I’ve said it a bunch of times before, some of my favorite plays of his are him blocking people, or cutting people because he’s going a million miles an hour, and whoever gets in front of him is going to get hit. He loves it.”
And if there’s one player Elliott wants to model himself after, it’s Rams Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk. Elliott called Faulk “his guy” growing up in St. Louis. And now that the two share the same agent, Elliott said Faulk has been helping him throughout the pre-draft process.
“Just kind of staying on pace,” Elliott said. “He helped me get on the board and get ready for these interviews.”
One incident Elliott has been prepared to address is his criticism of the Ohio State coaching staff following the team’s loss to Michigan State in November. It’s something those around the program seemed to have moved past quickly, but the running back understands why it’ll be brought up.
“I’ll tell them that I’ve grown up a lot since then,” Elliott said. “That was a great learning moment for me. I was emotional, but I think what teams want is a competitor. And that’s who I am and that’s where it all came from.”
That competitive nature appears to feed into whatever Elliott does, whether it’s running between the tackles, run blocking, or discussing other players at his position.
“All I control is how I go out tomorrow and compete,” Elliott said.
And with the way he does it, Elliott has a chance to be a successful running back for a long time.