Ohio State junior running back Ezekiel Elliott had one of the best seasons in Buckeye history on the way to a national title. But halfway through spring practice, he has taken little to no team reps.
Elliott has been sidelined for most of spring practice after undergoing offseason surgery on his left wrist. Not only is he on the recovery trail, but the Buckeyes have a new coach at the running back position. Tony Alford replaced Stan Drayton, who bolted for the NFL’s Chicago Bears just hours after Signing Day.
But what could be looked at as setbacks have actually been the opposite, Elliott said Thursday.
“(Alford) and coach Drayton are actually pretty similar. The way they attack, they are very passionate,” Elliott said. “They demand hard work. Coach Alford is a guy I knew well through recruiting and so getting adjusted to him was pretty easy.”
Alford came to OSU from Notre Dame, where he spent six seasons as a running backs coach, wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator.
Alford said Thursday that while Elliott is out for the next six weeks, there is an opportunity for other running backs to step up and improve their game.
“It gets some other guys an opportunity to get in there and get some quality reps,” Alford said. “Every single rep matters at all times because you are getting more of them. There’s less guys in front in line.”
Alford added that just because Elliott had a successful 2014 campaign, it doesn’t mean he can take the entire spring off, even if he is nursing an injury.
“The mental reps are big. Just because you had some success in the past, there’s still opportunities to grow and learn and see things,” Alford said. “The more mental reps can be very vital just as game repetition.”
The newest coach at OSU said he isn’t worried about Elliott’s commitment to improve however, adding that the Buckeyes’ leading rusher is showing his desire to return the field in practice.
“The one thing you love about Zeke is he is hungry. He wants to play. It’s killing him not to play now,” Alford said.
With Elliott sidelined, redshirt-junior Bri’onte Dunn is one of the players who has been reaping the benefits.
Dunn, who has been seeing the majority of the first-team reps at running back, said he is trying to take advantage of the opportunity as much as he can.
“It’s a very great opportunity. I get lots of reps. Me and (redshirt-junior) Warren Ball get lots of reps and it’s getting me better each and every day,” Dunn said. “Coach Alford (is) really pushing us and I really have a great relationship with him.”
Dunn’s extended reps have come because sophomore Curtis Samuel has been getting extended time practicing with the H-backs.
Dunn said that while no one approached him about his teammate’s change of position, he took it as an opportunity to showcase his talents.
“They really didn’t say nothing, they just moved him to H, and so it’s just me and Warren,” Dunn said. “As an older guy, I just took charge and went at it.”
With Elliott unlikely to play in the annual Spring Game on April 18, Dunn and Ball will probably get extended playing time in the team scrimmage at Ohio Stadium. After that, the Buckeyes are scheduled to open the 2015 season against Virginia Tech on Sept. 7 in Blacksburg, Va.