After breakout year, Elijah Collins and MSU running backs ready to lead
That was when fans and the coaching staff at MSU knew now redshirt-sophomore Elijah Collins was their guy at running back and not just No. 24 from University of Detroit-Jesuit.
“He just needs confidence,” then-Head Coach Mark Dantonio said after the game last season.
The confidence grew, he finished with 988 rushing yards on the season, and Collins is expected to be one of the better running backs in the conference after being named All-Big Ten Third Team last fall.
“I know I could’ve done better,” Collins said to reporters Monday. “There were a lot of things I really didn’t know. But after playing, going over my old film, studying a lot. I look to have a better year of course but it's a whole new year, it's 2020.”
Collins said the new coaching staff, regardless of last season, has made him want to prove himself. The new offensive scheme implemented by head coach Mel Tucker is a faster pace and will try to open things up for a run game that was maybe the best part of the MSU offense in 2019.
“With coach (Jay) Johnson’s offense, it’s just, he wants to make plays,” Collins said. “He sees all the talent and skill that we have in the running back room, also on the offense, he wants to make plays, he wants to move the ball, spread the ball around … he wants us to get out there make plays, regardless whether it may be with our feet or catching.”
“One thing I specifically wanted to do was work on my running mechanics,” Collins said. “Get my speed together because, I mean, I had a few big runs but I never really broke any home.”
The rest of the room
It isn’t just about Collins though especially after the return of Connor Heyward, who was initially going to transfer following last season, Heyward’s return gives the backfield another spark alongside Collins and true sophomore Anthony Williams Jr.
“For him, he’s just coming back and he’s going to do what he’s always done. Been a ballplayer,” Collins said about his teammate returning to the roster. “Connor’s been an excellent running back, I always could relate to him for assistance, his guidance … me and Connor have always been great friends, a lot of people want to think we're enemies or rivals … that's my dog.”
In addition to Heyward’s return, Heyward had 778 all-purpose yards in 2018, 3-star backs Jordan Simmons and Donovan Eaglin also will be big for veterans in Collins and Heyward to show them the ropes.
“They’re tremendous, really solid kids,” Collins said. “They come in with nice builds, they win with the attitude and the ability to coachable. That’s all you can ask for.”
It's clear that Collins is the lead back, especially after topping 1000 yards from scrimmage with five scores, topping 100 yards four times in 2019.
With an offensive line that only gave up 18 sacks last season, returns almost all their starters and is expecting improvements from four-star recruit Devontae Dobbs and left guard J.D. Duplain, those numbers look possible again for Collins.
“It would be nice to have the same guys in front of us,” Collins said when asked about the injuries that cost the offensive line much of its cohesion last season. “But it’s the game of football we’re talking about — one of the most physical, violent, most nasty sports and it's like, people go down, flukes happen. People get hurt, that kind of stuff happens, you know what I mean. I’m gonna roll with my guys regardless of who it is up there.”