OXNARD, Calif. — Ezekiel Elliott leaves the field to screams of “Zeeeeeke!” from autograph-seeking fans who haven’t even seen him carry the ball in a game yet for the Dallas Cowboys.
The fourth overall pick in this year’s draft opened his first training camp taking first-team snaps before a mild hamstring strain put him on the sidelines with Darren McFadden, who led the team in rushing last season but still could be replaced as the starter even after he returns from a broken right elbow.
If he’s healthy and not sidelined over a domestic violence allegation in Ohio, Elliott is likely to begin his career in a way that Cowboys Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett didn’t: starting the opener as a rookie running back.
Even if he doesn’t start in his debut, the former Ohio State star is the future of the running game for a once-proud franchise now 20 years removed from its last Super Bowl. He’s high on a list of non-quarterbacks that were taken in the first two rounds and could play significant roles right away.
“I’m just doing what they’re asking me to do,” said Elliott, taken two spots after quarterbacks Jared Goff (Rams) and Carson Wentz (Eagles) went 1-2 in the draft. “At running back we’re down a couple bodies right now, but we got to come together and get in shape and lean on each other right now.”
Elliott waited a day to face the expected swarm of reporters while knowing the conversation would quickly turn to the case in Columbus, Ohio, where his girlfriend accused him of assaulting her about a week before camp opened. The 21-year-old Elliott has denied the claims.
Looking a bit winded at times during his first two days in camp, Elliott also struggled with Ohio State’s school song and was forced into a second night of singing in front of his teammates — a popular rookie initiation in NFL camps.
“They can be all-conference in the biggest conferences there are, they can be All-American, they can win Heisman trophies. And then they step into this environment, it’s a step up,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We certainly like the transition that Zeke has made up to this point.”
A look at other picks that weren’t quarterbacks but could have significant impacts nonetheless:
Eli Apple, NY Giants: The 10th selection was Elliott’s former teammate at Ohio State and is now an NFC East rival. He is rotating at cornerback with veterans Janoris Jenkins and Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie, and first-year coach Ben McAdoo isn’t hesitating to start rookies after former coach Tom Coughlin rarely did in 12 seasons. “Everything is happening really fast,” said Apple, one of three Buckeyes taken in the top 10. “The meetings are really long, but I am having fun with it.”
Laremy Tunsil, Miami: The 13th choice out of Mississippi became one of the biggest stories on draft night when his stock fell after a video of him taking a bong hit in a gas mask circulated on social media. He’s making the transition from left tackle to left guard and might not start the opener. “We were talking about how training camp is going to be another speed,” coach Adam Gase said. “Preseason is going to feel like another speed. And then when you hit the regular season, it’s a completely different speed.”
Ryan Kelly, Indianapolis: The 18th selection out of Alabama is the first center the Colts have taken in the opening round since Auburn’s Jackie Burkett in 1959, and Burkett never played the position. Indianapolis has used five starters at center in four seasons with Andrew Luck, who has been hit more times (375) than any quarterback in that span. “I think playing center, obviously I think you have to have a sense of leadership,” Kelly said. “But at the same time I think you have to establish yourself as a good player and kind of walk the walk before you can say stuff as a leader.”
Laquon Treadwell, Minnesota: The 23rd pick from Mississippi made an impression by frequently catching extra passes after practice and as the first player to arrive on reporting day at camp. The receiver is still trying to regain his explosiveness from a lower left leg injury at Ole Miss in 2014, part of the reason he was available late in the first round. Treadwell still had 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns coming off the devastating injury. “Laquon will remain a student of the game and learn from guys in that room,” quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said.
Myles Jack, Jacksonville: The former UCLA linebacker slipped to the 36th overall pick in the second round because of uncertainty about his right knee. He tore the meniscus on Sept. 23 and left school shortly thereafter to rehab in Phoenix. He missed offseason workouts because of NFL rules regarding college graduations, leaving him way behind at the June minicamp, and still struggling to catch up when camp opened. Dealing with Florida’s sweltering summer heat and humidity has been as much of an issue as learning the playbook. “I’m having fun playing football again,” Jack said. “But I definitely need to get in better shape, get more reps and catch up.”
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