June 18, 2010 11:45:00 AM
David Miller -
STARKVILLE -- Everyone remembers the story of Robert Elliott''s last-minute commitment to Mississippi State.
The Okolona native and consensus top-10 running back in the 2007 recruiting class had pledged to attend the University of Mississippi before former MSU coach Sylvester Croom pulled off a late signing coup and encouraged Elliott to choose the Bulldogs over the Rebels, Florida State, Alabama, and Arkansas.
Since then, MSU fans haven''t seen much of the highest-rated back to come out of the state since former Rebel Deuce McAllister. Ball security issues and depth at running back led Elliott to redshirt his first year at MSU, but his biggest college challenge came in 2008 during a visit to LSU.
In an otherwise competitive game, Elliott suffered an injury no running back wants to consider: a torn anterior cruciate ligament
Elliott also tore the medial collateral ligament in the same left knee, and as he was helped off the field by trainer Paul Mock, he knew he''d have to wait even longer to make the impact he and MSU fans expected.
There was no rush for Elliott, though, as Anthony Dixon, Christian Ducre, and Arnil Stallworth had a firm grip on the running back rotation entering the 2009 season.
A new coaching staff entered the fold, meaning Elliott had to learn a new offense while returning from knee surgery. Both processes slowed Elliott''s confidence, though he impressed in spot duty last season with 80 yards against Jackson State and 62 at Arkansas.
Elliott knew he couldn''t run thinking about his rebuilt knee, but it''s a task easier said than done. He points to an unsuccessful run during a fake punt against Florida as the first moment he knew his recovery wasn''t complete.
"I tried to make a move and I tripped up," Elliott said. "My knee gave out on me. Last year, it was like cutting off one leg instead of using both my legs. The knee, as far as running straight, was good. I just used my right leg to make all of my cuts."
For a running back, especially one whose strength is in his shiftiness, playing with a limited, sometimes sore knee is like driving a race car with suspension issues.
Still, Elliott said he stepped on the field with confidence every time. Overcoming the knee injury was one thing, but learning the playbook and blocking assignments was another, MSU running backs coach Greg Knox said.
"Last year, he may look to the sideline for 20 seconds and still try to figure out that signal, so he played slower," Knox said. "Anytime a kid leaves the huddle and he''s thinking he plays a lot slower. (MSU freshman back) Montrell Conner, sometimes he leaves the huddle and I know he''s thinking and he plays a lot slower. It''s just a point of getting all my kids relaxed and comfortable with the system."
Knox noticed a breakthrough in the spring, as a fit, bulked-up Elliott showed the burst and ability that made him a heralded prep player.
To Knox, his pupil''s speed didn''t come from the weight room or workouts but from a comfort level in MSU''s option-based system. He understood the signals and the playcalling, which allowed him to play faster.
The spring was a transformation period for Elliott, who improved his pass protection and added 15 pounds of muscle to become a more complete back. He wants to continue to be a quick-footed back but wants to run with the same power Dixon and Ducre showcased.
"Those were my two goals going into the spring, and I feel like I got a whole lot better at my pass protection and running between the tackles," Elliott said. "I wanted to become a more complete back, and I think I took a big step in that direction."
Knox acknowledges Elliott''s biggest hurdle entering the spring was pass protection, but he admits the running back is only "halfway" there. When Elliott masters protection, his next step will be to perfect his route running.
"The other parts have come," Knox said. "I think he studied how to pass protect and worked at his technique. He got a lot better at it, and we as a coaching staff feel a lot better with him understanding the pass protection and how to get it blocked."
Now a junior, one of Elliott''s final obstacles is to live up to the expectations of being a high-caliber recruit. He has 282 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns in a little more than two full seasons. That total is far from what he imagined he would accomplish when he got to Starkville. In the fall, he will face competition from junior Vick Ballard and redshirt freshman Montrell Conner.
"I think about it all the time, and I do feel like I have something to prove," Elliott said.
Last season, Dixon carried the load and led the Southeastern Conference in rushing yards per game. He did it with two other senior running backs in the rotation. Knox doesn''t envision Elliott taking on a work-horse role, but he thinks he''s capable. In that vein, Knox has noticed Elliott''s demeanor and focus change with the departure of Dixon, Ducre, and Stallworth.
"He''s stepped it up," Knox said. "Just watching his leadership, his attitude on the field, off the field, in the meeting rooms, I think he realizes, ''It''s my opportunity now. If it''s going to happen for me, it''s going to happen now.'' "