East Lansing -- Before Jeremy Langford was running for more than 1,400 yards, scoring 19 touchdowns and perfecting his role as Michigan State’s closer, he was in a battle with a linebacker.
It was preseason camp a year ago and Michigan State was trying to find a replacement for Le’Veon Bell, who had left early for the NFL.
There were a lot of options, including Langford and fellow junior Nick Hill, as well as freshmen Delton Williams and Gerald Holmes. But there was one more wild card -- the Spartans had inserted linebacker Riley Bullough into the mix in the spring.
Needless to say, not many were talking about Langford becoming one of the most productive running backs in the Big Ten. After all, Langford was a player whose only touchdown at that point had come when he returned a fumble as a defensive back the season before.
It didn’t exactly look good for Langford, but he started the opener and looked solid, running for 94 yards and a touchdown. But it wasn’t until a 100-yard effort against Indiana in the sixth game that Langford started to turn heads.
He followed that game with seven straight 100-yard outings and became adept at scoring fourth-quarter touchdowns to bury the competition.
“Jeremy became a good player for us because I think he learned to run behind his pads a little bit better as the season wore on,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “He became stronger as games went on. He was able to run with power, but as we saw time and time again, he was able to spring himself in the secondary for a big play.”
The running back competition was history and Bullough was heading back to defense.
“Toward the end of the season I was confident,” Langford said. “I think the more you play running back, the more you play in game situations, you get more confident. I think I’m confident right now going into the season and I’m getting better than I was last season.”
That was a prediction Langford wouldn’t have made before last season. When he arrived at Michigan State he was part of the same recruiting class as Bell and Hill, while Edwin Baker and Larry Caper were already established. After a year buried on the depth chart, he made the move to defense.
But Langford’s time on defense was limited and coach Mark Dantonio moved him to receiver in the spring of 2012. That didn’t work out either, and by the time the season started, Langford was back at running back, behind Bell and Caper.
Langford admits now those were tough times. He was a player that couldn’t establish himself and wondered at times if transferring was the answer.
Instead, conversations with Dantonio convinced him he still had a future as a Spartan.
“He still had trust in me that I could play somewhere, and he was giving me a chance,” Langford said of the talks he had with his coach. “It took me maturing to realize that. It was just knowing that it can always get worse. I’m glad he kept me here, and he talked to me. He never gave up on me.”
After the season Langford had as a junior, it’s easy to say it all worked out for the best. But he’s convinced it was necessary to make him the player he is today.
“I wouldn’t change anything about it,” Langford said. “I think it made me the person I am at running back today. I’m glad I played defense and I’m glad I played special teams. That’s what we do at Michigan State.”
Now as Langford enters his final season with the Spartans, his focus is on not allowing his success to change his approach. He understands others see him differently, but he won’t change the way he plays.
“I still have to work like I’m not the starter,” he said. “I still work hard. I never thought I made it and I just kept working hard. I never really acted like I was ‘the guy,’ I just acted like I was playing with the second string.
“You can’t become complacent. Coach D talks about not becoming complacent because there is always someone behind you that’s pushing you, and they bring that talent every year. There’s a lot of talent in that running back room right now.”
There is talent, to be sure. True freshman Madre London had an impressive camp while Hill, Holmes and Williams are still pushing for carries.
But Langford has never been focused on his numbers. He’s happy with five carries or 25.
What his journey has taught him -- highlighted by the decision to stick with the Spartans -- is that individual success is great, but winning is better.
“It doesn’t start with me,” he said. “It always starts with the program. It took the whole team to get where we were last year. It’s not an individual goal. The more exposure the program gets, the more exposure we get individually. So, I just have to keep playing for the team until we get to the Big Ten championship and beyond.”
College Football Preview
Monday: Michigan State
Wednesday: Top 25 / nation
Thursday: Big Ten
Friday: State colleges