Saturday, October 23, 2021

Spring Ball Breakdown: Michigan State's running backs

April 9, 2021
Redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins (24) stiff arms a defender during the game against Illinois Nov. 9, 2019 at Spartan Stadium.
Redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins (24) stiff arms a defender during the game against Illinois Nov. 9, 2019 at Spartan Stadium. —
Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

Each week heading into the Spring Game for MSU Football, The State News will be taking a look at each position group on Mel Tucker's roster as the Spartans prepare for their second season under the Tucker regime. In this edition, Eli McKown dives into who could make a difference in the backfield at running back.

After a dismal season for the Michigan State running backs where none of the backs who touched the ball were able to reach the endzone, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker is looking to change that for the 2021 season.

“The run game was not nearly good enough,” Tucker said. “We all know that and I think putrid might have been a word that can be used and so it is what it is, but we need to get better. When we can't run the ball on our terms, we can't beat good teams, we just can't do it. We need to be able to run the ball when we want to run it.”

To address that, Tucker and the coaching staff added transfers to both the offensive line and to the running back room to create competition and help grow that part of their offense.

Unlike the Mark Dantonio regime where one running back dominated the carries, expect many different players to get an opportunity.

“I would definitely say it's running back by committee,” Michigan State offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “We've only had one scrimmage so it's hard to know all that, but they've all shown positive signs which I think is good because it will keep that competition going and that's just going to raise our bar. That's our end goal as far as when we bring new student-athletes in here, is to raise that bar of competition and so far that's happened at that spot.”

Elijah Collins, junior, 1086 rushing yards

Let’s go ahead and talk about the most confusing one of them all.

Heading into the 2020 season, Collins was the leading returning rusher in the Big Ten and was looked at to be the one consistent piece for a young Michigan State offense.

Then he ran for 90 yards.

Collins seemed like a lock to be a consistent rusher for the Spartans until he barely saw the field for Michigan State. The reason? We have no idea.

Tucker explained during the season and the moment he got hired that everyone had a clean slate with him and what you did in the past didn’t matter. That seemed to apply to Collins as Tucker explained that he felt other options gave them the best chance to win.

Collins showed his potential in his freshman season when he was 12 yards shy of a 1,000 yard rushing season behind an offensive line that was the same if not worse than in 2020, but Collins will likely have to prove that he can protect whoever the starter is at quarterback in passing situations to get more carries in 2021.

Connor Heyward, senior, 818 rushing yards

Heyward is returning for another season for the Spartans and that is a huge get for them on passing downs.

While Heyward has proven he can be a consistent running back when called upon when he ran for 96 yards against one of the toughest defenses in Northwestern for their shocking upset win in 2020, it’s his versatility in the passing game that makes him unique.

Heyward is the best running back Michigan State has in protecting the quarterback. With his size and athleticism, Heyward has the ability to compete and make a stand against blitzing linebackers and defensive backs along with holding off the occasional defensive lineman for a moment.

Heyward’s ability to block along with his hands in the passing game makes him a reliable and safe option for the Spartans and their offense. Expect to see Heyward take plenty of snaps in his final season.

Jordon Simmons, sophomore, 219 rushing yards

Simmons burst onto the scene in 2020 for Michigan State, leading the team in rushing yards with 219 yards. A change of pace back, Simmons brought an element to the backfield that no other running back had for MSU with his speed and ability to make defenders miss.

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Tucker had high praise for Simmons throughout the season and gave him ample opportunities as a true freshman.

“We play multiple backs and we're going to continue to do that,” Tucker said in October of 2020. "I thought Jordon Simmons was someone who impressed me in the game (Rutgers). As a true freshman coming in, running hard, and really taking advantage of some of the creases that the offensive line created."

Simmons is an interesting one to watch in 2021 and will have an opportunity once again to lead the team in yards if the opportunity is given.

Kenneth Walker, sophomore, Wake Forest transfer

Moving onto the transfers for Michigan State, Walker is easily the most intriguing player outside of possibly Anthony Russo to transfer to Michigan State.

Last season at Wake Forest, Walker ran for 13 touchdowns and 579 yards in just seven games. Curious how good he actually is? Just ask Drew Jordan, a Duke defensive end transfer who is coming to Michigan State for his senior season and had the task of trying to stop him last season.

"Kenny is a great player, very fast and very physical,” Jordan said. “He will beat you a lot of different ways. I actually did play against him, I don't remember if I tackled him or not just because they had another back at the time as well. That offense that he was playing in, he was definitely able to excel there and just looking at the player that he is right now, he has a lot of tools to be very successful.”

Walker’s explosiveness and ability to make guys miss makes him special and perhaps may even give him the edge in leading the team in carries this season if earned.

“I believe I'm an explosive back,” Walker said. “I think my biggest thing is explosiveness and being able to go in and out of my cuts and my vision.”

Walker has the potential to be the breakout player on offense not just for Michigan State, but for the Big Ten as well.

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Honorable mentions

Auburn transfer Harold Joiner, incoming freshman Davion Primm and freshman Donovan Eaglin will also be competing for carries this season.

Both Joiner and Primm have not yet arrived in East Lansing as they will enroll this summer, but each will bring talent to that room. Joiner comes from Auburn as a power back who was one of the top running backs in the class of 2018, rated as a four-star and the number five running back in his recruiting class according to 247Sports.

Joiner has the potential to lead this running back room as well, but he’ll have to pick up the offense quickly to have a shot. His power running and size will at least result in some carries on third or fourth and short situations though.

Primm, an Oak Park, MI native and a three-star recruit according to 247Sports and Eaglin, another three-star recruit from Manvel, Texas, will each have a tough time garnering many snaps, but don’t count them out as Tucker has shown he’s willing to roll with whoever gives him the best chance to win.

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