FRISCO, Texas – When Ezekiel Elliott recalls his first and only game against Saquon Barkley – Ohio State-Penn State, 2015 – one play stands out.
A move that mirrored his own skill set.
"One drive I went out and hurdled a guy," Elliott said, "and literally the next drive he comes back and hurdles one of our guys. That was pretty cool to me just to see him come back and do the same thing.
"That's when I met him and that's when we first started talking a little bit and that's kind of where I our friendship began."
Elliott was the Buckeyes' junior All-American back, primed for a top-5 NFL Draft selection that day. Ohio State blew out Penn State, 38-10, but Barkley had a breakout freshman performance. His 194 rushing yards topped Elliott's 153.
This Sunday at AT&T Stadium, two of the league's most talented young running backs will see each other again: Elliott, the engine for the Cowboys' offense, and Barkley, the New York Giants' No. 2 overall pick.
"He's special," Elliott said. "He's a guy that at any play he could take it to the house. The (Cowboys') defense definitely is going to be keyed in to him this week, and that's definitely one of the guys they're focused on containing.
Barkley has mutual respect for Elliott. At the NFL Scouting Combine in March, he told reporters that Elliott's rookie success in Dallas – a league-leading 1,631 rushing yards and first-team All-Pro honors – gave him confidence in leaving Penn State for the draft after his junior season.
"He came from the same conference I came from," Barkley said. "His game was able to translate to the next level and I hope the same for mine."
The two backs have texted some over the last three years, with Elliott offering bits of advice to the younger Barkley.
Elliott has always taken pride in being the Cowboys' fourth overall pick back in 2015 and showing that a running back can be a value pick that early in the draft. But he believes Barkley earned that top-five draft status with his own accomplishments.
"I think honestly was the best player in that draft," Elliott said. "He deserved to be picked that high."
Barkley rushed 18 times for 106 yards in his NFL debut, though 68 yards came on one play – proof of Elliott's "take it to the house" assessment.
The Cowboys' defense struggled defending Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's runs – some designed, some scrambles – in the first half of the season opener but were much more effective in the second half.
Barkley will present another challenge from the running back spot – just the Giants figure to focus on stopping Elliott.