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FRISCO, Texas -- What's the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Dallas Cowboys running Ezekiel Elliott?

For many people, the answers would range between bulldozing defenders for first downs or breaking away downfield for touchdowns. Those were regular occurrences during Elliott's prime, first four seasons from 2016 through 2019 when he registered over 1,300 rushing yards three times, including two rushing titles in 2016 (1,631) and 2018 (1,434). 

The answer to that question for Elliott's teammates now that he has returned to Dallas on a one-year deal after a year away with the New England Patriots in 2023 following his early release from a six-year, $90 million contract extension he signed back in 2019 is simple. It's his personality. 

"The first day he's back he put a big smile on everyone's face in the locker room," Cowboys seven-time First-Team All-Pro right guard Zack Martin said Tuesday at mandatory minicamp when asked about Elliott's return to Dallas after the 2024 NFL Draft. "He's got an infectious personality, maybe something we missed at times last year. So, it's great to have him back."

That personality was on full display shortly after his interview session with local media on Wednesday after the Cowboys' minicamp practice. Elliott jogged back into the middle of the locker room and jumped into hitting the Whip and Nae Nae dance moves while shooting a towel he used during practice into the laundry bin in the middle of the room. Elliott was smiling and laughing without a care in the world. 

"[It's] the  f----- best," Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said of Elliott's return and first full month back in Dallas.

"It means a lot. It means a lot," Elliott said Wednesday at mandatory minicamp when told of his teammates' appreciation. "I definitely work to be that guy. Being recognized means a lot. The main thing is we're going to have fun, but we're going to work. We're going to get work. We're going to be taking ourselves forward, but we got to have fun doing it." 

The backfield duo came into the NFL together as a part of Dallas' 2016 NFL Draft class with Elliott being selected fourth overall and Prescott coming off the board 135th overall in the fourth round. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback called the three-time Pro Bowl running back his "little brother" and a best friend obviously"  prior to the Cowboys facing Elliott when he was on the Patriots in Week 4 last season. Despite being away during the 2023 season, those around the building at The Star in Frisco, Dallas' facility, feel like Elliott " really never left" as he's reintegrated himself into the Cowboys offense. 

"It just feels like Zeke really never left," Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said on May 30 at organized team activities when asked about Elliott's first month back. "There's things that are different. He's had some new learning schematically, language, things like that. The foundation of what he's done. Frankly, probably his experience in New England [in 2023] to learn another system … He's picked it up. Looks good."  

Elliott himself agreed with McCarthy's assessment regarding what's been a seamless transition back to a place he views as home.

"I wouldn't say I was at all worried about how I was going to feel when I got back," he said when talking about fitting back into the team. "I was gone for however long, but I still talked to a lot of the guys in the locker room. Still hung out with a lot of guys in the locker room. Kind of just picked up where I left off."

Even though Elliott's return after a year away with the New England Patriots in 2023 means more competition for snaps and carries in 2024, Dallas running back Rico Dowdle, who served as Tony Pollard's back up last season, cracked a big smile when asked about having the big bruiser as a teammate for a second time with the Cowboys. 

"Great. That's a guy, a vet that's been here before. Great to have him back. Guy brings the energy every day. Keeps everyone together," Dowdle said at organized team activities on May 30, smiling when asked about Elliott. "That's my guy. ... That guy's a character man, he's going to make a memory every day. Nothing in particular (in terms of a memory), just coming out and having fun. We're enjoying each other, going out there and competing but no particular memory. He's just a vet guy, leads the right way. Coaching us, the younger guys, up in the meeting rooms and stuff."

What does Elliott bring to a running back position that currently has eight players in it entering training camp out in Oxnard, California? The football life of a player whose 2,065 career carries rank as the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2016 and whose 8,904 rushing yards rank as the second-most in the same span behind only Derrick Henry's 9,502 yards on the ground.

"Shoot, eight years," Elliott said when asked what lessons he imparts on his younger teammates at the running back position. "Eight years, however many carries, however many reps, however many blitz pickups. Just the experience. I've seen just about everything. Just give them a little bit of my experience, and any tidbit or nugget that could help them with their game.... We got a lot of guys. A lot of good young players that bring a lot of good things to the table. I'm excited to get to work with them in camp and continue to help them develop."

Entering his ninth NFL season in 2024, Elliott has put a lot more into his offseason conditioning as well as pre and post-practice warmup regimen. The diet is a little different approaching 29 (his birthday is on July 22) than it was when he was a 21-year-old rookie in 2016. Steak is no longer a regular component like it once was.

"Definitely got to. Definitely got to," Elliott said when asked if his diet has changed over the years. "That metabolism is definitely slowing down. Can't do as much Nick and Sam's as I want. Definitely have to tighten up there."

HIs pre-practice warmup also looks markedly different than it was in the earlier stages of his career. 

"Just have to do so much more. My routine is a lot more complex," Elliott said. "I have a lot of new exercises and things to help me prep my knees so I'm ready to go. It definitely takes a little more to get warm and get ready for those practices."

Part of his pre-practice routine involves warming up with a resistance band connected to his waist as well as associate athletic trainer/director of rehabilitation Britt Brown's. Once Elliott is nice and warm, he ends the session with a hug for Brown, who joined the Cowboys in a full-time capacity in 1996.

Elliott's pre-practice routine now involves a warmup with director of rehab Britt Brown. Garrett Podell

"Man, Britt's family to me," Elliott said. "Dealing with those knee injuries, he was there every step of the way, and he was a guy who always had my back. Even at times, protecting me from myself. I want to be out there on that field, but I just really appreciate him for being one of the best for me no matter what it is."

The nagging knee injuries that slowed him down in 2022 -- his last season with the Cowboys before his release when he recorded Dallas career lows in carries (231), rushing yards (876), yards per carry (3.8) and scrimmage yards (968) -- are no longer a part of his day-to-day life in 2024 thanks to both his new regimen and time. 

"I definitely don't really feel much from it at all," Elliott said when asked his knees. "I think it just, you know I had those back to back years with these kind of unlucky injuries, but making it through last year pretty injury-free knock on wood. I feel good going into the season."

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones declared Elliott remains a starting-caliber, NFL running back in the year 2024 after the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft at the end of April. That claim came despite Elliott totaling his worst NFL season with the Patriots in 2023, registering career lows in rushing yards (642), rushing touchdowns (three), carries (184) and yards per carry (3.5). The 28-year-old back agreed with Jones' assessment, but he isn't as concerned with having the bulk of Dallas' rushing attempts, especially early in the season, as he once was. 

"I still view myself as a starter in this league," Elliott said. "But also I got to take care of my body and make sure I'm fresh for when it matters. What's that going to look like? I'm not necessarily sure, but we'll figure it out. ... I love football. I'm going to do whatever it takes for me, that I need to do to help this team win. Whatever that is."

Dallas running backs coach Jeff Blasko said the Cowboys' coaching staff's approach to their running back by committee outlook "may change weekly" and that it will be about "feel" back in mid-May. Regardless, Elliott will likely have a familiar role in 2024: that of a short-yardage battering ram. His career third down conversation rate on rushes with less than five yards to gain for a first down is 72.2%, the fifth-best mark in the league among the 44 running backs who have at least 600 carries since Elliott entered the NFL in 2016 as the fourth overall pick. 

"He's, obviously a can of kick-ass in that department [short yardage]," Blasko said of Elliott. "He's a guy that over the course of his career can create on his own in those situations. Everything doesn't necessarily have to be blocked perfectly. He's kind of been an eraser for that: covering up whether it's a mental error or a fundamental [blocking] error. He's been able to kind of to be a band-aid, so to speak, to kind of cover that up. I think there were times last year where having a bigger body type that can hammer it home, I think would have helped us."