Chris Elmore was jogging to the sideline after his first collegiate action in Week 1 when a few of his Syracuse teammates grabbed him and pointed to a section of fans loudly cheering for the freshman.
“You’ve got a fan section,” one teammate told Elmore.
A few weeks later, Elmore was on the sideline as the Orange played Central Michigan when he heard them.
“Put in Elmore!”
“Give Elmore the ball!”
“We want Elmore!”
The section had ballooned in size. A week earlier, Elmore -- a 290-pound defensive tackle and fullback -- had gotten eight carries, and the sight of the big man rumbling with the rock had turned plenty of heads. The Syracuse fans wanted more.
“It was loud,” Elmore said. “I was like, 'This is crazy.'"
To be fair, a hulking freshman with dreadlocks dangling from his helmet getting eight carries is bound to attract some attention. The really crazy thing, however, is that Orange coach Dino Babers got to thinking that maybe the fans were right.
A week later, Babers held Elmore back after a team meeting.
“I know this will be a lot to put on your plate,” Babers told him without a hint of irony. “But I know you can do it.”
With that, Elmore became the ACC’s biggest running back.
Now, it’s worth noting that Elmore shouldn’t be judged by size alone. Yes, he’s the size of some of his offensive linemen, but he is most definitely an athlete. As a freshman in high school, he lined up at QB and receiver. As a 255-pound sophomore, he ran hurdles. As a senior at Chicago’s Phillips Academy, there was talk of building the offense around the fullback dive.
Still, even Elmore is amazed that anyone in the ACC thought to put the ball in his hands.
“Nobody saw this coming,” he said.
Even Syracuse running backs coach Justin Lustig likes to tease Elmore about his new role.
“I bet you never thought you’d be getting the ball in the ACC,” he has told Elmore repeatedly.
Each time, Elmore answers the same way: “No way.”
To be sure, opposing defenses are taking Elmore seriously. As soon as he runs onto the field, Elmore hears the catcalls -- not from the stands but from across the line.
Last week, before Syracuse took on Pittsburgh, Elmore got a text from Panthers defensive tackle Amir Watts, a former high school teammate who, it’s worth mentioning, checks in at 5 pounds lighter than Elmore.
“I know what’s going to happen if you’re on the field,” Watts texted. “You’re getting the rock, and you’re going to run it.”
“We’ll just have to see,” Elmore replied.
When Dabo Swinney flipped on the Syracuse game tape to prep for Clemson’s game Friday, Elmore again jumped off the screen.
“They’ve got a 290-pound running back,” Swinney said. “That’s just crazy.”
Christian Wilkins, the Tigers’ do-it-all defensive tackle, said he was inspired by Elmore’s role. Wilkins weighs 300 pounds and has had a couple big plays on special teams in addition to a role as a lead blocker in Clemson’s jumbo package. But seeing Elmore run the ball -- well, that opens a whole new set of possibilities.
“It gives me ideas thinking maybe we should incorporate me more into the offense,” Wilkins said. “I’m always in coach’s ear about that.”
Elmore said he has heard similar pleas from his own teammates on the defensive line at Syracuse, but it isn't just that Elmore is a trailblazer for big guys or a fan favorite for the home crowd. As Wilkins noted, Elmore’s size makes him a serious threat, a challenge physically.
That’s what Elmore likes to hear.
Sure, he’s getting carries, but he certainly doesn’t fancy himself the next Darren Sproles. He’s in the game for one reason: to punish defenders.
“Oh, I definitely look for contact,” Elmore said. “I’m not making a habit of bouncing around and looking for a gap. There could be two or three guys in the hole. I’m looking for contact.”
After Elmore’s recent games, he clicked over to Facebook and Instagram and found himself tagged in dozens of posts, with fans praising his mere presence on the field. He had texts and emails from friends and family, all thrilled to see him getting a share of the spotlight.
But what really sticks with him, what this grand experiment has been all about, is the feedback he gets on the field. In the huddle, on a short-yardage play, quarterback Eric Dungey will look up at Elmore, who takes up his fair share of space.
“Go get this for us,” Dungey will say.
And that’s it. That’s what Elmore loves about the job.
He’s still parsing through the playbook. He brings it home for reading after practice and calls his fellow tailbacks to get insight and advice. It’s a lot, he admits. And the spotlight that comes with being a fan favorite means his success and failure are all the more noticeable.
But there’s a yard or two to get, a first down that Syracuse needs, and that’s his gig now. It’s worth the effort.
“It’s tough,” Elmore said. “But it’s kind of cool.”