Michigan State goes easy on LJ Scott with ‘thin’ backfield

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — LJ Scott isn’t quite being treated like an NFL veteran, but the Michigan State running back is hardly going to be pushed to the limit this spring.

That’s because, as the Spartans continue spring practice this week, Scott is the only running back on the roster with any significant experience. Connor Heyward, who had three carries last season in limited action as a true freshman, is the only returning back that has touched the ball in a game.

So, keeping Scott healthy is clearly one of the goals this spring and likely one that will carry into next fall.

“I wouldn’t say I’m an NFL veteran,” Scott said with a big laugh on Friday. “But they’re playing it smart. At the end of the day football is football and injuries are gonna come, but it’s about being smart and staying healthy.”

That is especially true for Scott, who announced moments after Michigan State beat Washington State in the Holiday Bowl that he was putting off the NFL Draft and returning for his senior season. He ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns in that game, but his durability became even more important when Madre London, who would have been a fifth-year senior, announced he was transferring.

More: Brian Allen is MSU’s prime attraction in NFL Draft

With London now at Tennessee and an emphasis on getting Heyward plenty of work this spring, Scott saw limited action in Thursday’s scrimmage. The Spartans went only 60 plays, but not many of them were with Scott.

He was hoping for more, but he understands.

“I would definitely have liked to get more reps,” Scott said. “But the fact is it was the first scrimmage and all our guys are not back yet, so from coach’s standpoint it’s play it smart and keep me healthy.”

A healthy Scott could be vital to the Spartans’ success in the fall.

He has led Michigan State in rushing in each of his three seasons and if he eclipses the 1,000-yard mark in 2018, he’ll rank among the top five in career rushing yards.

He hasn’t hit 1,000 yards yet in a season, coming closes in 2016 when he gained 994 yards in 12 games. However, it’s on his mind now.

“It’s definitely something I’m shooting for,” Scott said. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about and I’ll definitely be trying.”

To do so, Scott will need to be on the field, which is why extra work won’t be necessary this spring. What will be is determining who could step in and provide more production.

Heyward is the most likely choice after he got his feet wet last season. Coach Mark Dantonio said on Friday that safety Austin Andrews has gotten some work as has walk-on Alante Thomas, the brother of former Spartan Lawrence Thomas.

And incoming freshmen Elijah Collins and La’Darius Jefferson will also get a shot in the fall when they arrive on campus.

“We’re a little bit thin there,” Dantonio said. “Connor played (in the scrimmage) and obviously LJ, but we’re thin there in terms of depth. Elijah Collins and La’Darius are coming in there to fill it out and Alante Thomas, LT’s brother, has been impressive. We moved Austin Andrews over there as well.”

While there is plenty of attention on the running back spot, spring has offered a chance for some other players to start emerging.

Many of those players redshirted in 2017 and are now getting a shot to move up the depth chart, including cornerback Shakur Brown and linebacker Noah Harvey.

However, it’s also a time for others that have been in the program for a few years to start contributing and spring is the first indication that could be happening.

“Shakur Brown had a pick yesterday, looking good,” Dantonio said. “I think Noah Harvey is looking good for a guy that redshirted last year. I think those are names that probably nobody has really talked about much.

“Xavier Henderson is impressive for what I would call a rookie — a guy that’s early enrolled — that’s been a big positive for us. We’ve got some linebackers that are dinged up a bit, but Brandon Randle continues to improve as well as Tyriq Thompson is a much-improved football player from what he’s been. He’s older, he knows what to do, he’s reacting instinctively. Byron Bullough has had a good spring thus far.”

Extra points

The Spartans must replace center Brian Allen, who is Michigan State’s most likely draft pick next month. It’s a four-person battle at this point with Allen’s brother, Matt, getting the most reps with the first team.

Also seeing some time at center are Tyler Higby, Jordan Reid and Blake Bueter while senior David Beedle can work into the mix, as well.

“Those guys are all sort of working things in there and one day they get the reps and one day they get slid to another position, so it’s been a positive,” Dantonio said.

… Dantonio said defensive back Emmanuel Flowers has moved to wide receiver this spring. He redshirted last season.

… Defensive lineman Mufi Hill-Hunt is over 300 pounds, but will miss spring practice as he recovers from the knee injury he suffered late last season.