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FRISCO (AP) — Ezekiel Elliott didn’t dwell for long on the moment that most made him look like a rookie with the Dallas Cowboys: his benching over two fumbles against Washington in the second game of his career.
The fourth overall pick in the draft faces the Redskins again Thursday, now as the NFL’s rushing leader for a team with nine straight wins rather than the player coming off a rough debut against the New York Giants in the only loss for the Cowboys (9-1).
“Just reps, that’s all it is,” the 21-year-old former Ohio State star said.
It’s a little more than that for someone who embraced the expectations as a lofty pick for a franchise that drafted two Hall of Fame running backs, Tony Dorsett and all-time NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith.
Elliott’s physical style fits well with one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. He can flip from punishing to graceful in one play while catching passes and blocking blitzes.
Oh, and that breakaway speed, as seen on an 83-yard screen pass for a touchdown that sparked a sluggish offense in a win at Pittsburgh.
“His coach in college said he’s the best player he’s ever had with the ball not in his hands,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s a young player, but he’s a very mature player. He picks things up quickly. And I think he’s got a tremendous competitive spirit.”
Those traits helped Elliott handle the expectations — one of the few things he doesn’t share with fellow rookie sensation and road-game roommate Dak Prescott.
The fourth-rounder from Mississippi State replaced injured quarterback Tony Romo and improbably led Dallas to the best record in the NFL, eventually taking the job from Dallas’ 10-year starter.
Elliott’s impact — 138 yards per game from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns — helped Prescott, too.
“I think it’s just him being himself and not letting the pressure or anything get to him,” backup running back Alfred Morris said. “Even the first couple of weeks, it started a little rough for him. He didn’t let that bother him.”
Morris can’t help but mention Prescott when describing Elliott’s success because he went through the same thing four years ago with Robert Griffin III in Washington. The standout combo of Griffin and Morris helped the Redskins reach the playoffs.
“It’s been fun to watch, especially him and Dak,” Morris said. “I know I keep throwing Dak in there, but they’re so good together. It’s pretty cool to see and I’m just sitting back and kind of admiring, like, man, just keep it up, keep it up, keep it up.”
Elliott started the season under the cloud of a domestic violence investigation in Ohio over an incident during the summer. He has been cleared legally, but not by the NFL.
It hasn’t affected Elliott’s generally cheery demeanor in the locker room — during the week or on game days.
After the Cowboys broke the club’s regular-season record with their ninth straight win last Sunday against Baltimore, Elliott chided 14th-year tight end Jason Witten about his age yet again.
It was something about the 34-year-old Witten having played football longer than Elliott had been alive.
“Yeah, think about it,” Elliott said Tuesday , not backing down from his claim. “If you count his high school, college and pro years. I’m 21. Do the math.”
Well, it doesn’t quite add up. But that’s not really the point. The effect on Elliott’s older teammates — which is all of them — is the point.
“He’s a totally different player from Week 2 and that’s all credit to him by the way he approaches practice, the way he goes out there and just ‘beasts’ it and has fun throughout practice,” receiver Dez Bryant said. “We just go out there and enjoy it.”
Besides the sluggish start to the season, Elliott has had slow starts to games. He didn’t touch the ball in the second quarter against the Ravens and had 26 yards rushing at halftime.
But Elliott finished with 97 yards for his eighth straight game with at least 92 while breaking Dorsett’s club rookie rushing record of 1,007 yards. He needed 25 carries (a rough-and-tumble 3.9-yard average) against the NFL’s top rushing defense.
“The teams I’ve been on and been successful, they are physical teams,” said Elliott, who has 1,102 yards rushing. “There are not many teams that want to do that for four quarters and that’s a mentality. I think that’s the championship style. I think championship teams all have that.”
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