Elijah Collins gets his chance as the starting running back
Dressed in a Michigan State jumpsuit with a white collared shirt buttoned all the way up, redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins took a seat in front of a plethora of reporters at the podium.
His first reaction?
"A lot of cameras," he said.
Collins may have been a little star struck. To be fair, he was in a bit of unfamiliar territory. In his MSU career, Collins hasn't been the guy that lights and recorders gravitate to. But, that's what happens when a young player has a career day.
In the 19th-ranked Spartans 51-17 victory against Western Michigan, Collins was the electric guy in the backfield that MSU's offense needed.
“Big day by Elijah Collins, busted some runs and got to the second level and hit it," Head Coach Mark Dantonio said after the win. "You could see his speed.”
In a back-up role, Collins gained just 17 yards on eight carries in MSU's opener against Tulsa. He also had a touchdown called back due to a holding call. But, the talent was noticeable.
In Collins' first-career start, he exploded. He ran for 192 yards on 17 carries, averaging 11.3 yards per attempt. Collins also became MSU's first 100-yard rusher since Connor Heyward did it last season against Maryland, when he ran for 157 yards on 15 carries.
“We’ve sort of got that tailback by committee and he’s done a nice job, had some good carries last week and so we felt like let's start out with him," Offensive Coordinator Brad Salem said after the game. "It's always been that way with coach Dantonio, even when I was with running backs in 2010, 2011 and 2012. It was kind of whoever got hot. And we need to see him. Obviously you get a rusher over 100 yards so it was a big day for him.”
Collins said that he found out that he would get the start during the week on Wednesday. He and coach Dantonio sat down and had a one-on-one talk. Dantonio was looking for one of his running backs to step up and be the guy. And after the promise he showed against the Golden Hurricane, he thought Collins could be the one.
“Elijah was a true freshman last year where he didn’t have much time," Dantonio said. "We got him in a couple plays but we redshirted him. I sort of felt like he has the physical skills. He’s strong, he’s a very explosive player, he just needs confidence. You know, he got 17 carries tonight, gained 192 yards, had a couple big ones. He just needs to get in rhythm and I thought he did tonight.”
Collins got in rhythm pretty early Saturday night – as in it started the second play from scrimmage.
On his first carry, Collins found a hole on the right side of the offensive line and busted down the sidelines for a 29-yard gain to get inside WMU's 20-yard line. He added 11 yards on the next play to set up the Spartans' first touchdown — a 2-yard pass from Brian Lewerke to Matt Dotson — on the very next snap.
Collins said those first two carries played a major role in settling himself down and preparing himself for the rest of the game.
"It definitely took my confidence to a different level," Collins said. "Big credit to the offensive line and receivers for blocking that second level and blocking the front. They did a tremendous job.”
Collins showed a lot of traits that MSU running backs had been lacking. The speed, the ability to change directions, to break tackles but most importantly the vision.
“Just playing football my whole life, it's just something that I’ve been used to, making cuts here and there," Collins said. "Everybody might not see it, it's just kind of like second nature to me. Seeing the hole or seeing open areas for cuts is just what I do.”
If Collins continues to produce like he did against the Broncos, he won't need to feel star-struck in front of the cameras anymore. It will become second nature to him, just like his vision to find an cut into the open hole.
Collins accomplished a lot in his first start — almost everything. Within the 192 yards, his first-career touchdown still alluded him.
But he says that's coming next.
“I wanted it real bad," Collins said. "That first one against Tulsa, they kind of took it away from me, but this week I wanted it real bad and as you can see I a’int get it yet, so I’m trying to get in the end zone.”