FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Ezekiel Elliott doesn’t pretend that vocal leadership comes naturally for him.
The Dallas Cowboys running back is going to try anyway now that fellow stars Jason Witten and Dez Bryant are gone, and now that his focus is solely on football following a tumultuous second year in the NFL.
Elliott is no longer under investigation by the league over domestic violence allegations that led to a two-month court fight of a six-game suspension he ultimately had to serve starting halfway through last season.
The ban cost him a chance to defend the NFL rushing title he won as a rookie, and helped keep the Cowboys out of the playoffs a year after he and quarterback Dak Prescott, the NFL offensive rookie of the year in 2016, led Dallas to the best record in the NFC.
A quiet offseason reached another benchmark Thursday with the final practice of minicamp. In another six weeks, training camp will be underway in California.
“I think the biggest thing I accomplished is just developing more leadership skills,” Elliott said. “That’s really what I focused on coming into this year, just becoming a better vocal leader with the loss of Dez and Witt.”
Running backs coach Gary Brown has been pushing the idea with Elliott, who is going into his third season after the Cowboys drafted the former Ohio State star fourth overall in 2016.
The loss of leadership is actually about more than Witten, the tight end who retired after 15 seasons, or the outspoken Bryant, who was released in a cost-cutting move. Veterans Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris aren’t in the running backs room anymore.
Elliott isn’t the oldest running back at the position for the Cowboys. But he’s the most experienced and most accomplished. Elliott still led the NFL in rushing yards per game last year.
“It’s a little bit tougher for me to be a vocal leader,” he said. “I like to go out there and work. I think it takes a little bit more extra effort to kind of encourage guys to come with you so it’s definitely something I have to work on.”
With the domestic allegations looming during the offseason last year, Elliott had a hard time keeping himself out of the headlines.
There was video of him pulling down a woman’s shirt during a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Although he wasn’t disciplined for that by the NFL, the incident was mentioned in the letter detailing his punishment. Elliott also had his second minor car accident in his two years with the Cowboys.
The 22-year-old hasn’t given anyone reason to question his judgment so far this offseason.
“I think it changed him a lot,” Brown said of events over the past year. “I think that he’s realized that this is a very special opportunity that he has, especially to be one of the better backs, one of the best backs to ever play. He has that opportunity, and I think he understands that now.”
Elliott shattered the Dallas rookie rushing record with 1,631 yards two years ago. Last season, he was at his best in helping the Cowboys to a three-game winning streak that boosted their playoff hopes. Then the suspension hit.
The departure of Bryant has left the Cowboys with uncertainty at receiver and the likelihood that they will lean heavily on Elliott, with defenses obviously scheming to stop him.
“I’m all for it,” Elliott said. “A lot is asked of the running back of the Dallas Cowboys. A lot has been asked of me in pass receiving. I think I’ve had some great strides this offseason getting ready to carry that workload this season.”
While encouraging Elliott to speak up more in his group, Brown hasn’t felt the need to stress what’s coming with the workload. That’s something he figures Elliott understands.
“I think Zeke is a very intelligent man,” Brown said. “And it’s going to happen early. We understand what the mindset of some defenses will be, and we’ve just got to make sure we weather the storm.”
For now, Elliott is enjoying the calm.
NOTES: RG Zack Martin signed the $84 million, six-year extension that made him the highest-paid guard in the NFL. Martin is now under contract through 2024.
More AP NFL: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL