OXNARD, Calif. >> Ezekiel Elliott never has offered much about his state of mind at training camp a year ago when the star running back of the Dallas Cowboys faced the possibility of a suspension over domestic violence allegations.
So let his position coach explain the difference now that the drama is gone.
“You go at this time last year, he’s very stressed out,” running backs coach Gary Brown said. “Wasn’t himself. Looked big. Now he looks happy and jubilant and lean and just going out there and having some fun. So it’s a completely different Zeke than it was last year.”
The six-game suspension was announced while the Cowboys were in California last year. Elliott’s legal team sued after the club had returned to Texas, sparking a two-month court fight that finally ended with the 2016 NFL rushing leader serving the ban halfway through the season.
Elliott had an uneven start last year before looking more like the rookie sensation who helped lead the Cowboys to an NFC-best 13 wins alongside quarterback Dak Prescott, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year on that playoff team. Then Elliott ran out of legal options, the Cowboys lost three straight games and Dallas ultimately missed the postseason at 9-7.
There isn’t any waiting and wondering now.
“I am just ready to go out there and prove myself and be the running back I am for this team,” Elliott said in his first meeting with reporters at camp. “And go out there and have a good year.”
The suspension wasn’t the only thing that had Elliott in the headlines last year.
There was video of him pulling down a woman’s shirt during a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dallas. The NFL cited that incident in its letter detailing his punishment while saying it didn’t play a role in the outcome of a yearlong investigation conducted despite prosecutors in Ohio not pursuing the case. Elliott also was linked to a fight outside a bar not long before the team reported to California last July, although his name didn’t appear in the police report detailing the incident.
This offseason came and went without any significant headlines.
“I am being more cautious, more focused on my game,” said Elliott, who turned 23 last week. “And focused on having a good year.”
After leading the league with 1,631 yards rushing in 2016, Elliott had the best per-game rushing average last season at 98.3 yards. His 2,614 yards through two seasons are the most in franchise history, ahead of NFL all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith and another Hall of Famer, Tony Dorsett.
The Cowboys aren’t making any secret about building their offense around him. Dallas dumped Dez Bryant, the franchise leader in touchdown receptions, in a cost-cutting move in the offseason. They believe the passing game with Prescott is best-suited feeding off Elliott.
That’s why the Cowboys were as interested as Elliott was in a quiet offseason for the former Ohio State star.
“It’s important for him, it’s important for his teammates, it’s important — obviously — for our franchise and what people’s thoughts are on him,” executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones said. “I think it was huge that he was able to really get his hands around what this is all about — the challenges that are out there. Hopefully it’ll continue.”
With Bryant and 15-year tight end Jason Witten gone, Elliott mentions leadership every time he talks to reporters now. While acknowledging that vocal leadership doesn’t come naturally for him, he’s shown some signs in position drills at camp.
“I think he’s grown into it pretty well,” Brown said. “Obviously he’s not a vocal leader. But I think he leads by example. When guys see him finishing the way he finishes and working the way he works, that speaks louder than his voice.”
As for Brown’s “happy” thoughts about Elliott, the 2016 All-Pro will whoop and holler from time to time while carrying the ball to end zone even after the whistle blows during practice.
“I think he’s in good spirits,” backup running back Rod Smith said. “I’ve seen what he went through last year and seeing him to be able to overcome all of that and just to see him now just having to worry about nothing but football, it’s a beautiful feeling.”
Owner Jerry Jones supported Elliott’s legal fight even though it kept the issue lingering over the team when a quicker resolution might have given the Cowboys a better chance at a playoff push late in the season.
“I just think he looks veteran-ish,” Jones said Sunday. “I think he looks confident. I think he’s getting good hard work in. Fundamental work. He just looks sound to me. I’m glad to see him get that solid work in.”