The New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley and the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott figure to be a major part of their respective teams’ game plan in Sunday night’s game. Barkley and Elliott are familiar with each other from their collegiate days and have developed a mutual respect and friendship.
For all intents and purposes, it began on the night of Oct. 17, 2015. Barkley’s Penn State Nittany Lions traveled to Columbus to face Elliott and No. 1 Ohio State. The two running backs made quite an impression. Barkley, a freshman, ran for 194 yards on 26 carries while the junior Elliott had 27 carries for 153 yards and a touchdown.
The Buckeyes destroyed Penn State 38-10. It didn’t stop Elliott, then the best running back in college football, from coming up to Barkley after the game to congratulate him. Elliott was impressed watching Barkley vault over a defender, something he’d done on the Buckeyes’ previous offensive series.
“I would say the moment I remember the most…one drive, I went and hurdled a guy and literally the next drive he comes back and hurdles one of our guys,” Elliott said after the game. “That was pretty cool to me. Just to see him come back and do the same thing.”
Elliott’s praise of Barkley, who was playing in just his fifth collegiate game, didn’t stop there.
“A real big shoutout to that freshman running back,” Elliott said. “He’s definitely the truth.”
The two remained in contact from that point forward despite the differences in their personalities. Barkley is reserved while Elliott is more boisterous. The Giants rookie said he received a congratulatory text message from Elliott after his 106-yard performance and 68-yard touchdown run in last week’s loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“Just hitting him here and there, giving him a little bit of motivation, seeing how he’s doing,” Elliott said.
Barkley watches tape of NFL running backs (specifically Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, and Todd Gurley) as part of his training. Head coach Pat Shurmur believes both players can do everything. He specifically talked about what he referred to as their “collision balance”, which allows them be excellent runners and blockers.
The difference between them is how they play the game. Elliott is more a bruising type of running back who loves taking the ball up the middle and forcing contact with defenders. Barkley likes to run outside routes but is more elusive and a threat to run to daylight each time he touches the ball.
Cornerback Eli Apple has had the chance to see both backs up close. He won a national championship with Elliott and the Buckeyes in 2014 and is now teammates with Barkley after playing against him in college.
“Man, I definitely think Saquon is a different runner,” Apple said. “Saquon has some crazy shiftiness. Zeke does too, but they move differently.”
Barkley hopes to replicate Elliott’s rookie season success when he ran for an NFL-best 1,631 yards and was named All-Pro.
“When I look at Zeke, something I want to get better at that he does is downhill running, understanding situations and taking what the defense gives you. Just lowering your shoulder and doing that,” Barkley said. “Sometimes in college, I would try to make that three and four yards and try to make it 60 sometimes.
“Just being more aware of the game. He’s a very physical runner. He’s big. He’s jacked. And then he can come out and juke you and catch the ball out of the backfield. And the way he sets up screens. The patience in his screen game is really good.”
Elliott thinks his success is the reason why the Giants decided to draft Barkley instead of going with conventional wisdom and selecting a quarterback. His ego notwithstanding, the last two NFL rushing leaders were rookies (Elliott in 2016, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt in 2017).
“It (his success) definitely might have,” Elliott said. “But he’s a phenomenal player. He’s a great player—definitely—I think, honestly, he was the best player in the draft. He deserved to be picked that high.”
Barkley had the third highest rushing total of Week 1 while Elliott ran for 69 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries in a 16-8 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The team that is ultimately victorious Sunday night will be the one who wins the ground game. Jacksonville has the one of the best defenses in the NFL and they marveled at Barkley’s physicality and speed.
Apple believes Barkley can have a rookie season like the one Elliott had two seasons ago.
“I’ve seen all that. And I played him in college,” Apple said. “He’s got that hungriness and he wants to go out there and dominate. Very hard to tackle. He’s strong and shifty. So, he’s going to be a great one.”
Elliott knows the Cowboys defense will be focused on stopping Barkley Sunday night.
“He’s special. He’s a guy that any play could take it to the house,” Elliott said. “The defense is definitely going to keyed into him this week.”
– Curtis Rawls is a Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage and covers the NFL, the New York Giants, and the NBA. Please like and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Twitter. Curtis can be followed on Twitter @CuRawls203.