Thursday, May 28, 2020

Running back attrition leaves Spartans young and inexperienced

October 9, 2019
<p>Freshman running back Elijah Collins (24) runs out of the tunnel prior to the game against Utah State on Aug. 31, 2018 at Spartan Stadium. </p>

Freshman running back Elijah Collins (24) runs out of the tunnel prior to the game against Utah State on Aug. 31, 2018 at Spartan Stadium.

Photo by CJ Weiss | The State News

Elijah Collins had two carries to his name, both in Michigan State's 14-10 win over Rutgers, that came at the end of the 2018 season.

Months later, the redshirt freshman running back from Detroit is the Spartans' most experienced ball carrier.

Recent attrition to Michigan State's running backs room has left the position extremely thin and inexperienced. Connor Heyward announced he put his name in the transfer portal following MSU's 40-31 over Indiana two weeks ago, and sophomore La'Darius Jefferson followed his lead Tuesday afternoon.

Both of their decisions came as a result of Collins’ ascension.

He has quickly established himself as the No. 1 back for MSU's offense, and the lack of carries that Heyward and Jefferson were seeing sent them packing.

“They’re doing the best for what’s for them," Collins said after Tuesday's practice. "I mean, at the end of the day we all have one goal. It's always to play at the next level eventually, so they’re just doing what’s best for them.” 

As the Spartans travel to Madison, Wisconsin this Saturday to take on the eighth-ranked Badgers (3:30 p.m. EST, BTN), Collins — the veteran — will lead a group of ball carriers with tons of unknowns surrounding them.

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“It's a little crazy, yeah, because for me, everything kind of changed pretty fast," Collins said. "So now, just being the most experienced running back in the room was kind of surprising, but at the end of the day I got to do what I got to do and just play football.” 

Since taking over as the starting running back in week two against Western Michigan, Collins has rushed for 459 yards — 196 of which came against the Broncos — and three touchdowns. Behind him is true freshman Anthony Williams Jr., out of Chicago, who has 19 career carries, and no more than seven in a single game, which he did in Michigan State's 31-10 win over Northwestern.

Then comes true freshman Brandon Wright, from Euclid, Ohio, who hasn't even touched the field this season. And then Saginaw Valley State transfer, and walk-on, Alante Thomas, who has carried the ball three times in two seasons on MSU's roster.

Unknowns, youth and inexperience may be understatements.

“You can’t prepare for it," Michigan State offensive coordinator Brad Salem said. "You've just got to adjust to what the situation is.” 

Wideout Weston Bridges, who played in six games last season as a running back before making the position change, could make the switch back as well. Salem said that the offense has "talked about everything" when asked if Bridges is a candidate to wind up back in the backfield.

In his limited role, Williams Jr. has shown some burst when given the opportunity, and Salem sees his skill set developing. Salem also said that Wright has been with MSU "in and out and doing some scout team", and will now need to be ready when his first opportunity may come.

“I think there has got to be a simpleness to the coaching, to the plan," Salem said. "They have a very good understanding of football. They have a high football IQ, and so the guys have been with us. Anthony, through the spring, and Brandon, still learning through fall camp. You know, Elijah has emerged as a top-back and doing a really nice job as a starter.” 

As in many other cases of football teams, when a lead running back like Collins establishes himself as a the No. 1 guy, it becomes hard to take him off the field, especially to inexperienced ball carriers. Salem said he thinks that Collins can get up to 20 to 30 carries a game because of his physicality.

Collins may have to do that now, just out of necessity, and to his own fault. Collins has played himself into this role. He pushed the players that were in front of him out of the way.

And now, still in his second full college football season, has become the veteran for Michigan State's backfield.

“At the end of the day, those are my brothers. Conner [Heyward] and La’Darius [Jefferson] are broth my brothers and I love them to death," Collins said. "It just shows what hard work can do for you.” 

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