After tumultuous year, Ezekiel Elliott wants to put the work in

Ezekiel Elliott rushed for nearly 1,000 yards last season despite missing six games. "I'm excited for this year, and I have high expectations for myself," he said. Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

FRISCO, Texas -- On the final snap of 11-on-11 running drills, Ezekiel Elliott made sure he carried the ball to the end zone, some 30 or 40 yards away. It's a normal habit for the Dallas Cowboys running back, something he has done since his rookie year.

During organized team activities open to the media on Wednesday, Elliott added a new twist to his routine.

At the end of every 11-on-11 drill, whether he got the ball or not, Elliott ran to the end zone.

After practice, Elliott spoke about wanting to be more of a leader as he enters his third year -- vocally or by example.

"I just want to show them how to work," Elliott said.

Last season was a struggle for Elliott for all the wrong reasons. Under investigation by the league for more than a year for an alleged domestic violence incident involving a former girlfriend while in Columbus, Ohio, not long after he was drafted in the first round by the Cowboys, the NFL announced a six-game suspension during training camp.

Through a legal fight that was expensive and tainted his perception, Elliott managed to stay on the field for the first eight games. He could have fought through the courts longer, but he accepted the punishment and missed six games.

"Obviously, what went on last year is distracting to anybody," coach Jason Garrett said, "I thought he handled it really well, fought through it, came back and did a good job for us at the end of the year."

Elliott finished 17 yards shy of 1,000 yards despite missing the six games, still good for 10th in the NFL. If not for an 8-yard, nine-carry effort in a Week 2 loss to the Denver Broncos, Elliott might have recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

As the Cowboys start their on-field preparation for 2018 with these OTAs, there is an anticipation about what Elliott can do without the looming threat of a suspension. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said recently he believes Elliott will look more like he did as a rookie, when he finished as the NFL's leading rusher with 1,631 yards.

Elliott agrees.

"I'm excited for this year, and I have high expectations for myself," he said.

After his rookie year, there was talk of 2,000-yard seasons and breaking records, but those discussions were tabled because of the suspension.

As a rookie, Elliott's personality shined through -- from his feed-me celebrations to his jump into the Salvation Army red kettle. In 2017, he was more sullen and seemingly less engaged, even though at the time his coaches and teammates said he was no different.

"The emotional roller-coaster he was going through last year -- 'Was he playing?' 'Was he not playing?' -- and then to have the game taken away from him for the time he did, it takes a toll," quarterback Dak Prescott said. "It takes a toll on anybody that cares and loves what they do. And not only that, loves their teammates and the organization they play for. So just having that freedom, coming in this year, being able to work and knowing he's going to have every game ahead of him is going to do wonders for him. He's been great out here at OTAs, being a great leader, showing guys the way to practice and the way to run."

After a rookie season in which he was named to the Pro Bowl and earned first-team All-Pro honors, he was ranked seventh in the NFL Network's Top 100 list as voted on by players across the league. While it is by no means an official rank or meaningful other than to raise debate, Elliott fell to No. 54 in the 2018 rankings.

"I mean, it is what it is," he said. "I missed six games, you know?"

Regaining his spot as one of the league's leading rushers means more than the ranking.

"I mean, I think I know the player I am. You guys know the player I am. Everybody in the league knows the player I am. I don't need verification from a top-100 list."

But will the 2019 ranking better be higher?

"Should be," he said.

Which is why he runs to the end zone whether he has the ball or not.

"He's just showing those young guys the way to practice, with the ball, how to be great with the ball in your hands and how to be great without the ball in your hands," Prescott said. "He's one of those guys that doesn't have to say too much on the field, just the way he carries his business, the way he goes about it and the way he practices. It speaks for itself, and the young guys look up to it. I look up to it. The older guys look up to it. That's the way to practice and the way to be a pro in this league."