August 8, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Michigan State has plenty of talent at running back behind Jeremy Langford

Nick Hill is listed as the No. 2 running back. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

East Lansing — It’s difficult to put too much emphasis on a preseason scrimmage, but if you’re a freshman or anyone else battling for playing time, performing well in a scrimmage can be absolutely critical.

That is the case in Michigan State’s first scrimmage today, as a large group of first- and second-year players are looking to stand out.

“We’ll try and make it as game-like as we can,” coach Mark Dantonio said, “And as I told our young players, this week will define if you’re going to play this year or not, for the most part. You’ve got to be able to get your feet on the ground and be able to adapt to the system. They’ve had a week of practice and learning a little bit.”

That is true at plenty of positions, including several on defense. But on offense, an intriguing battle is taking place at running back.

There is no question who the No. 1 back is — senior Jeremy Langford, who rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.

But the Spartans don’t want to wear out Langford, and believe they have plenty of talent to help him out. Senior Nick Hill has been a steady performer in spot duty throughout his career, while sophomore Delton Williams played nine games last year as a true freshman. Then there’s redshirt freshman Gerald Holmes and true freshman Madre London, who wowed coaches with a 50-yard touchdown run this week.

Co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner said Hill officially would be the No. 2 back at this point, but it’s hardly set in stone.

“Those guys are fighting for a backup spot,” Warner said. “Nick Hill has been very steady, as he has been since he’s been here. Madre London is good, Delton Williams is good, Gerald Holmes is good. They’re all playing good. (Today) will tell us a lot more.”

It’s not exactly like a few years ago when the likes of Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper — three established players — were fighting for carries, but the battle is shaping up to be a tight one.

While Hill has the most experience, it’s more likely the young players will get the best shot. Williams gained 238 yards on 38 carries last season, but missed spring practice with a shoulder injury.

“I feel like I’m (behind) a little bit,” the 6-foot-1, 228-pound Williams said. “I need to relax more. I got caught up with the injury and picked up a couple bad habits. Now it’s about getting back into the rotation, working on my footwork and some other things. I feel much better than I did last year when I weighed more. I’m slimmed down and can move a little better.”

For Holmes (6-0, 221), the key is proving his redshirt year in 2013 was the right move. But he believes he brings the right amount of speed and power to be effective.

“It was tough to redshirt at first,” Holmes said. “But after going through the year and coming in now, I kind of know my plays more and used that extra year to learn. That’s the biggest benefit, and just maturing.”

The newest runner of the group is London. At 6-1 and 213 pounds, he was ranked as the No. 17 back in the nation last year by

The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native is doing whatever he can to avoid the redshirt season Holmes endured.

“My whole mission is to do that,” London said. “I’m going to keep working hard and, like the coaches preach in recruiting, if you’re the best player you’re gonna play.”