OXNARD, Calif. -- Defensive end Tarell Basham was in perfect position for the tackle for loss, waiting for Ezekiel Elliott as the Dallas Cowboys' running back took a handoff. Then all of a sudden, Basham wasn't.
With two quick steps, Elliott changed direction, got up to full speed and broke free to the left side of the field for a long gain during the Cowboys' first training camp practice of 2021.
A year ago, Elliott might not have made that kind of a move, and perhaps not even two years ago, either.
It is premature to extrapolate what would have happened in a game situation or even a fully padded training camp practice, but what we're seeing here is a different Elliott.
He is leaner, dropping to 218 pounds for the first time, by his estimation, since his freshman year at Ohio State in 2013. And perhaps more than anything, he is motivated by his less-than-stellar 2020 season in which he ran for a career-low 979 yards and those questioning whether he can still be the NFL's top running back. It was just three years ago when Elliott led the league in rushing with 1,434 yards on 304 carries during the 2018 season.
"You've got to experience the lows to enjoy the highs," Elliott said. "I definitely had some lows last year, so I am ready to experience some highs this year."
The 26-year-old did not experience very many highs during the Cowboys' 6-10 season in 2020. Life was difficult after quarterback Dak Prescott went down with a season-ending ankle injury, and tackles Tyron Smith (two games) and La'el Collins missed most or all of the season because of injuries. All-Pro guard Zack Martin missed six games because of a concussion and calf strain.
Elliott dealt with his own injuries, a hamstring and calf, that limited his work in practice.
"The biggest thing for Zeke, and just think since I've known him since his first day here, [is to] just be himself. He'll take advantage of his opportunities," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. "I know his numbers aren't [what they were] last year compared to what they were prior years, and the standard he set for himself, but he does so much more than just run the football for us. ... The production on the field is not a concern. The production will be there with the opportunity."
Elliott's quest to regain his form started by reaching out to Josh Hicks, a Dallas-based trainer, who worked with Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette before the 2020 season. Elliott spoke with Fournette, who got Hicks and Elliott together on a text message thread. Not long after the conversations began, the trainer and Cowboys running back found themselves at Prescott's backyard turf field early in the offseason for their first workout.
Most of Hicks' sessions with Elliott took place at nearby SMU, but they also worked out at some local high school fields.
"He didn't say what he wanted to work on or how he wanted it to be done, but let me say it like this -- most running backs that are bigger backs, my main focus is maintaining that for them, but still getting them to be able to move and stay elusive as if they was a smaller back," said Hicks, who played running back for a brief time at Purdue. "We know they going to run somebody over. We know they going to get their shoulder down and get the short yardage. But do they have the lateral explosiveness to do the things smaller backs can do. If you can add that, well, it's deadly."
Hicks, who also counts Denver Broncos running back Melvin Gordon III as a client, sets up his drills for game-like situations. Instead of tacklers, however, he uses garbage cans, tossing them one way or the other, forcing Elliott to cut in a different direction while keeping his knees high.
"He understands it quick," Hicks said. "He'll catch on and we go. I'm not saying it's science. It's just football. You got guys that can play football and move well, and you got guys that can play football and don't move so well, but they're good athletes. You put everything together and practice it over and over and make it repetitious and that gets your quick-twitch muscles flowing real quick. That's where that cut on a dime comes from."
Elliott had two runs of 20 yards or more last season, which marked a career low. He had two 100-yard games, also a career low. He averaged 4 yards a carry, another career low.
"Definitely short-area quickness," Elliott said of where Hicks has helped him the most. "You kind of look at Josh, he's 5-7. He's a lot smaller than me, he has [a] lot shorter legs than me and a lot more shifty, and so I kind of look at my game and look at what I need to improve on and that's kind [of] going to the strengths of his game. When I went to work with him, it was just kind of getting better at my weaknesses."
The hourlong workouts were always intense because Hicks has a no-nonsense style as a trainer. Elliott's $90 million contract or his three Pro Bowl appearances do not faze him.
"I don't care who you are, I mean, I talk to them all the same," Hicks said. "If you're messing up I'll tell you. If it sucks, it sucks. If you're slow, I tell you you're slow. If it's not right, it's not right. But finish the rep though, because we're coming back and I'm going to correct you. I don't sugarcoat it, because at the end of the day my name is behind them. I can't sit there and say, 'That's good,' and it's not good. Can't do that."
While most of the work between Elliott and Hicks was done prior to the start of the Cowboys' offseason program, they got together a few times the week before the Cowboys flew to California for training camp. Consider it a sort of fine-tuning before the season started.
"I went and got in the lab and got better," Elliott said.