COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ezekiel Elliott and the Ohio State offensive line could make most quarterbacks look good.
For all the headlines generated by the Buckeyes’ ability to replace a star quarterback with another star quarterback last season, the development of the running game was every bit as important to Ohio State’s national championship season.
No matter if J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones takes snaps for the Buckeyes this season, Elliott could be the focal point of Ohio State’s offense. The junior ran for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns last year and enters this season on pretty much every list of Heisman Trophy hopefuls.
At the start of last season, Elliott and an offensive line breaking in four new starters struggled to get rolling. In a September home loss to Virginia Tech, Elliott ran eight times for 32 yards. But when Ohio State turned it on down the stretch, Elliott and the offensive line were dominant.
“Zeke was the exact same player all year, but then the people around him just needed to play better in order for him to really show what he was capable of,” tackle Taylor Decker said.
Elliott had 153 yards and two scores at Michigan State, then had three 200-yard games in the postseason. Against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, Elliott ran for 698 yards and eight touchdowns.
“The key with Zeke is if you can get him to the second level, his skill set at the second level is unbelievable,” offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said.
The offensive line now returns four starters, including Decker, who considered entering the NFL draft early before deciding to return to Columbus, and guard Pat Elflein. There might not be a better group of blockers in the country.
“I think we’re definitely farther along than we were last year at this point, especially from a chemistry standpoint and an experience standpoint,” Decker said. “But I think it would be dangerous to sit there and believe that we’re the best.”
Elliott does not shy away from praising the guys who make his life easier.
“I think they’re going to be the best group on the team because after last year and the experience they gained and how tough they are and how hard they work, I don’t see anyone outworking them or anyone being better than them,” Elliott said.
The Buckeyes are a safe bet to start the season No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25, which will be released Sunday.