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Running backs, wide receivers feel 'challenged' by new leadership

April 12, 2019
Freshman wide receiver Jalen Nailor (8) runs to the end zone lead by redshirt freshman quarterback Rocky Lombardi (12) during the game against Purdue on Oct. 27, 2018 at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Boilermakers 23-13.
Freshman wide receiver Jalen Nailor (8) runs to the end zone lead by redshirt freshman quarterback Rocky Lombardi (12) during the game against Purdue on Oct. 27, 2018 at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Boilermakers 23-13. —
Photo by CJ Weiss | The State News

In addition to drastic on-the-field offensive changes for Michigan State football, the teams' running backs are looking forward to working more with new offensive coordinator Brad Salem.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio made the change from current quarterback coach Dave Warner in January.

Junior running back Connor Heyward said the offense misses Warner, but he feels Salem knows more of the ins and outs of the running back position. He added the new offensive coordinator tries to help other players see from the running back's point of view to expand everyone’s knowledge.

“He’s definitely worked with great backs,” Heyward said. “Le’Veon Bell, Jeremy Langford, Edwin Baker, Larry Caper, Spartan greats. Coach Warner was more of the quarterbacks with Drew Stanton, Kirk Cousins and many other people."

In his first three seasons with the Spartans, Salem started out as the running backs coach before going on to the quarterback coach. Under his helm, Bell and Baker ranked second in the conference with a combined 1,613 rushing yards in 2011.

Sophomore wide receiver Jalen Nailor believes Salem challenges everyone to the best of their ability and doesn't focus his gameplan around any single player.

“I just think that Coach Salem is going to have perfect game plans,” Nailor said. “He is going to give everybody the ball and not just me.”

Salem is not the only new leader stepping up this season. The Spartan running backs seek a new on-field leader after losing LJ Scott after he declared for the NFL Draft.

Heyward knows this is his time to take the leadership role. Last season, he led MSU with 529 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns and 118 carries.

“Usually, there’s an older guy like a senior fullback or something like that,” Heyward said. “I just happen to be the oldest guy in the room. Based off the reps I got last year, I think I’m more forced into that leadership role and I’m fine with that.”

One of the players he'll be expected to lead is redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins. He started in three games last season before sitting out until the RedBox Bowl and he admitted it was due to being "banged up."

For the April 13 spring game, he hopes to show he deserves his position back while learning to work with the players around him.

(0:59) “It makes it very competitive,” Collins said. “It also makes it very fun. These are your brothers that you’re going to be with for three or four years, but at the same time … you got to compete everyday.”

Last season, Nailor and Collins played as true freshmen. Nailor has noticed the difference between his freshman season and the run-up to his sophomore year.

“I would say just the atmosphere is different,” Nailor said. “It’s still football at the end of the day. It’s something I’ve been doing my whole life and it’s just another game to me.”

MSU will host their annual spring game with kick-off starting around 2 p.m. this Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

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