- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ezekiel Elliott never has to go too far to be reminded of the tradition he's hoping to uphold.
Inside the Ohio State running backs meeting room are pictures of legends like Archie Griffin, Eddie George and Chris "Beanie" Wells.
"I'm very aware," Elliott said. "Every day, [running backs] coach [Stan] Drayton reminds us. When you see those guys every day, you know you have to continue the legacy."
Elliott doesn't even have to think back that far in history to know what he's trying to replace. Last year, Carlos Hyde led the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, finishing with 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns despite serving a three-game suspension to start the year.
Hyde's departure leaves a seemingly gaping hole in the Ohio State backfield. Elliott, a sophomore, will get the first crack at filling it.
He ran 30 times for 262 yards last year, with most of that production coming in a 162-yard performance in mop-up duty against Florida A&M. There’s certainly a difference carrying the ball against an overmatched opponent like the Rattlers and doing it in the heart of Big Ten play, but Elliott says that brief experience as a true freshman was beneficial.
"Getting out there and playing helped a lot, just getting those jitters out," he said. "Hopefully this year, I'll be ready to go.
"I think I've improved a lot. I've gotten a lot bigger, I'm faster and I anticipate the game a lot better."
Urban Meyer has stopped short of anointing Elliott as the heir to Hyde, but Elliott practiced with the first unit almost the entire spring. He had only three carries in last week's spring game, as the Buckeyes know by now what they've got with him. Senior Rod Smith, who missed spring practice because of academics, and sophomores Warren Ball and Bri'onte Dunn also are in the mix for carries. Midyear enrollee Curtis Samuel also impressed the coaches this spring.
Still, it's pretty clear the Buckeyes see Elliott as the starter in 2014. Elliott has the pedigree; ESPN Recruiting ranked him the No. 11 running back in the Class of 2013 after he piled up 3,061 all-purpose yards and 50 touchdowns as a high school senior in St. Louis. He also won three Missouri state track and field titles.
"He probably has some of the best quick-hip explosion of anybody on the team," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "You see it in his pass protection. You see it in his quick, sudden burst cuts. He has good vision, and he's a great team guy who just wants to win and go hard. There's a lot to like."
There's more of Elliott to like this season, too. Last year, he played between 210 and 215 pounds. This spring, he said, he weighs about 225 pounds. He doesn't look as thickly built as Hyde, who was listed at 236, but he still packs some power in his carries.
"He's a very strong runner," Herman said. "On a scale of 1-to-10, if Hyde is a 10, then he's an 8.59. He's not there, but he's still pretty darn good when it comes to running between the tackles, putting his shoulder down and making the tough two-, three- and four-yard runs."
Elliott, however, won't have the veteran offensive line that Hyde enjoyed running behind the past two seasons. Only one starter -- tackle Taylor Decker -- returns from last year's unit, and the Buckeyes spent this spring trying to find the right combination up front. That remains a concern heading into the summer, but Ohio State remains dedicated to establishing a physical ground attack.
"We're never going to abandon our core principles and tenants and beliefs offensively in terms of being a downhill, A-gap, tight zone and power running team," Herman said. "Now, will we need to get the ball to the perimeter a little more to take the heat off the guys up front? Probably."
That's another reason the Buckeyes like Elliott. He can get those tough yards in between the tackles, but he's also got the speed to do more than just that, as evidenced by his 8.7 yards-per-carry average in limited duty last season.
"I can take it outside, run tight zone, power and catch the ball out of the backfield," he said. "So think it helps a lot that I'm versatile."
Elliott will need every tool at his disposal to live up to the standards set by some of his Ohio State predecessors. Good thing he's got a lot of them.