Michigan State's Connor Heyward, Brian Lewerke, Felton Davis and Luke Campbell recap MSU's win over Utah State and this week's trip to Arizona State Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Mark Dantonio will play whomever has the hot hand.
That’s how the Michigan State coach has always approached which tailback will be getting the bulk of the carries for the Spartans. It’s how he did it when Le’Veon Bell shared the backfield with the likes of Edwin Baker and Larry Caper and he’s done it the past few years when he had LJ Scott splitting time with Gerald Holmes and Madre London.
Just one week into the 2018 season, Dantonio is already being asked whether the carries will be distributed differently after Scott gained a hard-fought 84 yards on 23 carries while sophomore Connor Heyward provided a second-half spark, scoring twice and picking up 42 yards on just five carries.
“I think Connor is our No. 2 tailback right now,” Dantonio said. “He's a very good player. When he earns that opportunity (to be the No. 1 back) that will be something we discuss at that time. Right now, LJ is our No. 1 tailback. We'll ride that horse right now.”
There’s plenty of reason to do so, especially considering Scott has led Michigan State in rushing in each of his first three seasons. However, in the opener against Utah State, it was Heyward that seemed to have the extra jump in his step.
While Scott wasn’t finding much room behind an offensive line that admittedly wasn’t happy with its performance — “I think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” tackle Luke Campbell said — Heyward was sprinting around the end for a pair of touchdown runs and an 8.4 yard-per-carry average.
His first touchdown run — a 17-yarder — opened the second half while his final scoring run — a 13-yarder on the option — proved to be the winner. But even Heyward isn’t ready to say he should be getting the ball more.
“I appreciate people noticing me, but LJ did have a really good game,” Heyward said. “That touchdown that got held back, it wasn’t a hold, but he had 84 rushing yards. Some things weren’t opening up, but he did have an overall good game. The media will try and twist it and say I should start, but that’s just one game. You can’t let that go to your head. Obviously, I know he’s the guy and I have to make the most of my opportunity when I’m in there.”
No. 15 Michigan State (1-0) will likely need both Scott and Heyward when it heads to Arizona State (1-0) on Saturday. While the Spartans ran for 165 yards in the opener, they’ll need to do much better than that.
A lot of that lies in the play of the offensive line and getting left tackle Cole Chewins back will help, whenever that happens. In the meantime, Scott and Heyward will continue to be the top two options.
“We’re both big backs and both can do everything,” Heyward said. “We have the opportunity to put defenses on their heels and I think the first game showed what we’re capable of doing as a whole offense and I think we can improve from the O-line to the receivers to the running backs to even the quarterback.”
At 6-foot and nearly 230 pounds, Heyward is a physical back like Scott but also has the versatility to play in the slot and be a receiving threat out of the backfield.
“He makes his own holes and can run over people,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said of Heyward. “He has got some speed, too, and he’s got fantastic hands. We can use him in all aspects of the game.”
What was unique about the opener was the fact Heyward did all his damage on the ground while it was Scott that had three receptions for 57 yards. While Heyward will more often be the threat in the passing game, both will play significant roles.
It’s also worth paying attention to who else might join them in the backfield. Dantonio said Tuesday that redshirt freshman Weston Bridges as well as true freshmen Elijah Collins and La’Darius Jefferson continue to push for playing time.
“We've got not only (Scott and Heyward) but Weston Bridges and I’ve been impressed with Elijah Collins, La'Darius Jefferson as well,” Dantonio said. “(We’ll) bring all five of those tailbacks to the game, see what happens. I'm going to play whoever is pulling the load basically.
“When and if it comes time to play somebody different, we will do that. But I don't foresee that. I thought LJ played pretty well. (Heyward) gives us another guy to go to, at times we have both of them in the game, which is a positive.”