For a split second, Ezekiel Elliott stops behind his offensive line. His eyes dart left then right, scanning what is in front of him by jersey color and daylight before he sprints through a tiny hole for a decent gain.
Later in the same training camp practice, Elliott takes a handoff from Dak Prescott wide to his right, pacing himself as his offensive linemen seek out their targets. His eyes don’t come off what is happening in front of him, secure in the knowledge he will not get tracked down from behind.
As Zack Martin engages with the safety, Elliott accelerates and hits the open field. The crowd along the fence screams, “Zeeeeeeeke,” as he runs all the way to the end zone.
As much as speed, strength and toughness matter for a running back -- and Elliott has demonstrated that from the first game he played for the Cowboys -- patience might be his best trait, but it was not something he had when he arrived in Dallas.
“The scheme I came from in college at Ohio State, plays hit a lot harder, I mean a lot faster,” Elliott said. “Honestly when you move to this next level you’re playing against a lot better players, a lot smarter players, a lot stronger players, so those double-teams are going to take longer to develop. They’re going to develop and you’re going to have to set up your blockers better.”
Much of the buildup for Sunday’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants will be centered around the running backs. Elliott was the fourth overall pick in 2016. Saquon Barkley was the second overall pick in 2018.
The success of Elliott, as well as that of the Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley, has helped ease the notion that running backs can be found anywhere, playing a part in why the Giants bypassed finding Eli Manning’s successor at the top of the first round and went with a player they hope lengthens Manning’s run as their quarterback.
The Cowboys drafted Elliott that high to help prolong Tony Romo’s run as their starting quarterback, but they never saw action in a game together because of Romo’s back injury and Prescott’s stellar play in 2016.
Elliott’s early success might seem to fall in line with what he did at Ohio State, but belies the work he has put in to know exactly what the Cowboys want in their zone running scheme and what the defenses are doing to stop him.
“A lot of times you see young guys, they get jammed up,” running backs coach Gary Brown said. “You’ve got to put some time in and really study the film and be able to do those things and be effective at it.”
There are landmarks Elliott has to hit on specific plays. Sometimes it is the outside hip of the tight end. Other times it is the inside hip of the left guard. He needs to plant with his left or right foot at precise moments. He has to find a hole that opens and closes sometimes as fast as a wood chipper, but with the vision to make it seem as slow to close as an elevator door.
“I just think it’s timing,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “Backs have a great sense of timing, understanding that if they’re there too fast it’s not going to work and if you’re too far behind, you’re too slow.
"Some plays develop quicker than others. You’ve got to know if it’s a quick hitter, a fast trap, something like that, you have to go now. Then there might be a zone play where we’re blocking the first level and reading the second level. You’ve got to get to a certain spot before you make your cut. He’s really adjusted his running style to the plays we run. He’s had to learn the different paces.”
He has also had to learn defenses. As he did with DeMarco Murray, who led the NFL in rushing in 2014 with a club-record 1,845 yards, Brown has had Elliott study defensive fronts. Elliott can visualize the holes based on the defensive alignment and anticipate before the snap.
“If I know where that thing is going to hit, I’m already two steps ahead of the defense,” said Brown, who had two 1,000-yard seasons in his eight-year career.
In high school, Elliott said he was a natural runner, physically more gifted than anybody else on the field. After two years at Ohio State, he said the game slowed down for him. In his first two games with the Cowboys as a rookie, he did not have the patience. He ran into his blockers, turning what should have been bigger gains into smaller gains. In the third game of his career, he ran for 140 yards on 30 carries.
Now, Elliott can see the game through the offensive line’s eyes. He has been helped by the presence of three Pro Bowlers in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, although Frederick is out indefinitely because of Guillain-Barre syndrome.
“Trust me, he’s making us look good a lot more than we’re make him look good,” Martin said.
The Cowboys’ zone scheme is not based on overpowering defenders out of certain holes. It is about displacement, with Elliott reading which way a blocker is taking the defender. At times, the blocker can tell where Elliott is heading by looking at the defender’s reaction.
“What Zeke does so well is he’s patient, but once he sees his spot, he hits it,” Martin said. “He’s very good at putting his foot in the ground and going. We just have to do a good job of staying on the guy, getting to the second level and then he makes the big plays.”
In 26 career games, Elliott has failed to reach 80 yards rushing just three times, including last week’s season-opening loss to the Carolina Panthers. He carried 15 times for 69 yards with 33 of those yards coming on two second-half carries.
He has 11 100-yard games in his career, including back-to-back 100-yard efforts against the Giants.
In the first game of his career against the Giants in 2016, he carried 20 times for 51 yards, but he is a different back now.
“If you’re comfortable with knowing what you have to do,” Elliott said, “then you can kind of elevate your game beyond that.”