Johnathan Hankins remembers when the freshman running back came to Ohio State. The first thing he noticed was how tough the kid was.
“When I was there he was known for giving some real good blocks,” said Hankins, now a defensive tackle for the Giants. “He was a real good team player.”
On Sunday, though, Hankins knows rookie Ezekiel Elliott will be doing more than just that.
“I don’t think the Cowboys brought him in to block anybody,” he said with a chuckle.
No, they did not. They brought him in to be a dynamic ball-carrier and play-maker behind what is widely regarded as the top offensive line in the NFL. Without Tony Romo at quarterback, the Cowboys will be starting another rookie, Dak Prescott, and the conventional wisdom will be for Jason Garrett and his staff to protect Prescott as much as possible by counting on that line up front.
“It doesn’t matter to me who’s playing for them at the skill positions,” Giants coach Ben McAdoo said. “They’re always going to lean on that offensive line. It’s one of the best in the league, if not the best. They’ll take their shots down the field, but they’re going to lean on that line.”
In other words, the Cowboys have plenty of other players to block for Elliott as opposed to the other way around when Hankins last played against him.
“We made a very concerted effort when I became head coach to rebuild the offensive line and in the process of rebuilding our team, we placed a premium on that,” Garrett said. “We put a lot of resources into that group and those guys are in many ways the leaders of our team . . . Regardless of the age of the quarterback or the age of the running back or receivers, I think the better you are on the offensive line, the better opportunities the skill positions will have to have success.”
Asked if it’s about beating the line or stopping the running back, Hankins said a bit of both.
“We need to stop the run game in general,” he said. “We all know they have a good running back and a great offensive line. The offense is a load.”
But are the Giants better suited to face that Dallas line than in the past?
“You could say that,” Hankins said. “We have some new guys who are going to be contributing who are going to be out there playing and getting a chance to play with each other for the first time.”
Chief among them in this particular regard is Damon Harrison, the mountain of a defensive tackle who was signed by the Giants in the offseason. Last year when his Jets faced the Cowboys he led his team with 10 tackles. That’s a pretty good track record against the strength of the Dallas offense.
Hankins said he hasn’t spoken much to Elliott since their one year together at Ohio State, though they did exchange some texts during training camp.
“I’m sure when I get to Dallas I’ll hit him up, see how he’s doing,” Hankins said. “Tell him we’re going to be coming for him.”