Michigan State running back LJ Scott talks about the upcoming season. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — When the bulk of a team’s returning skill players happen to play the same position, figuring out a way to best utilize that talent is usually a wise move.
For Michigan State, that means coming up with a way to make the most of the fact it has three running backs good enough to start for most teams in the Big Ten.
“It’s difficult because they’re all deserving of being on the field,” co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner said. “So the way we approach things with a guy that deserve to play is we try to get him on the field. It’s not like we’re trying to find a third back — we’ve got ‘em. We’ve got three good ones. Our job is to get them on the field and get them opportunities.”
Those three, of course, are fifth-year senior Gerald Holmes and juniors LJ Scott and Madre London. They’ve all had big games, all made the big plays and all have been in the starting lineup. None of this is new at Michigan State. It was the same in 2015 and again in 2016 — having enough carries to go around is tough.
However, none of the coaches or players involved have allowed it to become a negative.
“It’s a competition all around,” Scott said. “But the thing about the three of us that you probably won’t find with any other team is the support we still give each other no matter who’s on the field. We’ll still be the first one to run down the sideline if one of us scores. If one of us messes up, we’ll also be the first to say we missed a block or should have hit that hole harder.”
In other words, they all know the team is better off when one — whoever it happens to be — is getting it done on the field.
“I want to be that guy a lot,” Holmes said. “But I train myself, mentality and physically, to be able to deal with five carries, 10 carries, whatever is in store for me I’m gonna take and grab. At the end of the day, the team is the most important thing and in our running back group we feel like whoever is in will get the job done.”
There seems to be little doubt, at least outside the Michigan State locker room, that Scott is the player with the biggest upside. The former four-star recruit from Hubbard, Ohio, shunned the hometown Buckeyes in favor for the Spartans and has been on the verge of breaking out in each of his first two seasons.
As a freshman in 2015, he carried the load on Michigan State’s 22-play, game-winning drive against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game, running 14 times, including scoring the winning touchdown.
A year ago, he led the Spartans with 994 yards on 184 carries. However, he was hampered all year by injuries to both shoulders and had surgery on each in the offseason. It kept him out of the spring, but he says he’s 100 percent and hoping to live up to the expectations that have him on the watch lists for the Maxwell and Doak Walker awards.
“I’m working every day for it,” Scott said of being the featured back. “Just trying to do something every day to separate myself form those guys to be the guy.”
Included in that is becoming a better pass blocker, something Holmes has excelled at and one of the reasons he’s always gotten his share of carries. Holmes ran for 540 yards in 2015 and gained 431 on 91 carries a season ago. He also happens to be the best pass-catcher of the group.
Almost forgotten at times is London. He started six games in 2015, highlighted by 18 carries for 103 yards in a win over Oregon. However, injuries set in and forced him out of the rotation. Now, he wants a shot at reminding everyone what he’s capable of.
“Every time I step on the field I feel like I’ve got something to prove,” London said.
The challenge for Warner and the offensive staff is to find a way to get them all involved. They’ve always followed the idea that the “hot back” will get the bulk of the work and nothing has changed entering 2017.
But that doesn’t mean things can’t change. To that end, tweaks to the alignment have already been considered.
“We can certainly formulate and create some formations or personnel groupings where they might be on the field at the same time,” Warner said.
Maybe the old full-house backfield or as coach Mark Dantonio called it on Monday, a T formation.
Whatever it is, the running backs themselves have been pushing the idea.
“We bring it up to Coach Warner every day,” Scott said. “Hopefully that’s something he can surprise us with.”
Whether all three are on the field together or not, they all agree — on a young team striving to get back into the mix in the Big Ten East, the running backs will need to carry the load.
“We really don’t need to say that because guys know,” Scott said. “We talk about it in our room all the time and they know who the more experienced group is, but at the same time it’s a team thing. We all need to come together and that’s something we really didn’t have last year.”