FRISCO, Texas - Some of the toughest challenges in football have nothing to do with being in elite physical shape. It's not always about the fastest forty-yard dash, the best hands, or an ability to evade a tackle. The majority of the time, especially after an offseason like 2020, the mental side of the game is the toughest to get back into mid-season form.
That's exactly the topic second-year tailback Tony Pollard recognized and rectified throughout his offseason training before the start of camp last week. After flashing signs of greatness in a backup role during his rookie season, Pollard entered his first professional summer with a goal in mind to improve in the area that matters to him the most.
"My mental aspect of the game," Pollard said. "Physically I'm pretty much the same as last year but mentally I'm in a completely different state."
Pollard rushed for 455 yards on 86 carries last year after being selected in the fourth round (128th overall) of the 2019 NFL Draft. His value became more apparent in Week 3 last season as he tallied his first 100-yard performance and capped it off with his first career rushing touchdown against Miami. Thus, cementing himself as not only a backup to Ezekiel Elliott, but an added option for the offense in the run game.
Being a backup has its own challenges when a player is as talented as Pollard. Yet he was able to navigate those obstacles to find a common ground with the previous coaching staff that best utilized his talents even in limited action. But this season, as a new regime takes over in Dallas, he still feels that if his head is in the right place that things will work itself out.
"It's completely different with a new coaching staff but other than that I'm a lot more prepared mentally, for things I wasn't expecting," Pollard said. "The ins-and-outs of things but I'm a lot more prepared mentally."
Kellen Moore is the one constant that remains from that offense a year ago that began to visualize Pollard as more than just a runner. The thought process after a year ago was how to involve him as a receiver as well as a tailback when calling plays. Something that he did efficiently during his college career at Memphis.
During his senior season at Memphis, he caught 39 passes for 458 yards (11.7 ypr) and three touchdowns. A stat that fell just 96 yards shy of his rushing total from that year when he had 552 yards on 78 carries (7.1 ypc). While it's much different than being successful as a receiver in the NFL, Pollard's success in the passing game with the Tigers bodes well for a smooth transition.
This is something both Moore and running back coach Skip Peete will look to expand upon in training camp and hopefully produce a whole new wrinkle for an opposing defense to stop this season.
"I think Tony has done a really nice job thus far," Peete said. "He's worked extremely hard learning the running back position and obviously having the ability to remove him from the formation and line him up as a wide receiver. And run receiver routes."
With just 15 receptions on 20 targets last season for 107 yards, it seems like a tough hill to climb for Pollard to really be a key part of the passing attack. Especially when targets may be limited while lining up next to receivers like Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. Pollard and Elliott have to compete for their touches more than ever before, which is another reason having the two involved in the passing game makes total sense.
Peete has even toyed with the idea of using the duo together in a formation, something we had seen with the previous coaching staff, but only on a limited basis. Pollard is the speed and agility, while Elliott is the power and the stability. The two together has the new coaching staff ecstatic about the possibilities that the tandem provides.
"Well I think that's been a conversation through the offseason as far as utilizing both of those guys and using their skillset to help expand our offense," Peete said. "Put a little bit more pressure on a defense when you have two different style of backs in the backfield at the same time."
No matter what the role is, Pollard also has an innate understanding that his role is not defined by statistics, but instead team success.
"It's kind of early for me to know what my role is going to be right now. But I'm just ready to get in and make plays whenever my number is called," Pollard said. "Just having guys who can make plays all around the field. Never knowing who the ball is going to go to or having to depend on one person or a few people, we have a whole group of guys that can make a play."
For a second-year player, Pollard has already learned that team success comes with building the mental side of the game and ensuring the start of the season is with a clean headspace. And while he proved plenty in his rookie season, he believes he's just scratching the surface of his true potential as he nears kickoff.
"I feel like every season in the league I have to prove myself because nothing is given to you and I've always had that mindset," Pollard said. "And that's what got me here so I'm going to keep that same mindset and hunger."