MSU RB La'Darius Jefferson talks about the transition he's made from high-school quarterback. The Detroit News
East Lansing — If Michigan State found itself in a pinch at quarterback, Brian Lewerke thinks freshman running back La’Darius Jefferson could get the job done.
“It’s nuts,” Michigan State’s starting quarterback said after practice on Tuesday. “Whenever I see him throw the ball it always impresses me because his form is so good; just how the ball comes off so nicely. But he’s done a great job of transitioning to and just being a running back, in general. He’s done a fantastic job.”
Ranked one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation coming out of Muskegon —High, Jefferson was on Michigan State’s radar well before he ultimately decided to become a Spartan. He didn’t come as a quarterback or even a linebacker — the position Michigan State first considered for him when it initially offered him a scholarship.
Instead, Jefferson became a running back, making the transition coach Mark Dantonio was sure Jefferson could make.
“I probably watched more film on him last year personally than any other player that we recruited because it was an ongoing thing,” Dantonio said. “We had to sit there and say, were we going to recruit him as a quarterback, were we going to recruit him as a running back? We actually offered him as a linebacker coming out of his junior year, so I thought he was a very good football player. I knew he could play somewhere and in a lot of ways I looked at him like Le’Veon (Bell), because Le’Veon did so much as a high school player and I knew he could play probably outside backer if he didn't play tailback.”
MSU QB Brian Lewerke talks about the impact of freshman RB La'Darius Jefferson. The Detroit News
But as Dantonio kept watching it kept becoming clearer — Jefferson was destined to be a running back
“I just kept watching that film and watching him take the ball on his quarterback, midline options and duck it up inside and make abrupt cuts,” Dantonio said. “I thought, I just kept saying, ‘Hey, if he learns how to play at tailback and continues to make those abrupt cuts, staying vertical with his pads low and running through tacklers he'll be an excellent tailback.’ So, we decided to take him, or offer him. He decided to come.”
It’s proven to be a wise choice as Jefferson has gained 110 yards on 26 carries and broke through for his first touchdown last week, a 2-yard run in No. 20 Michigan State’s victory over Central Michigan.
“Shout out to the O-line, they did a terrific job all game and especially on that final push at the goal line,” Jefferson said. “And shout out to Max (Rosenthal), the fullback, he dominated the linebacker and that extra effort got us in end zone.”
Jefferson’s role has steadily grown since senior LJ Scott left the Arizona State game early in the third quarter. He got three carries that night followed by 10 against Indiana and 13 last week against the Chippewas.
With Scott due to be back soon with his ankle close to 100 percent and sophomore Connor Heyward proving effective starting in Scott’s place, it’s hard to say how consistent Jefferson’s work will be as the season progresses. But considering the quick transition Jefferson has made from quarterback to running back, it seems he’ll continue to be part of the game plan, beginning with this week’s matchup with Northwestern.
The transition has been smooth, Jefferson said.
“It’s just picking up the offense fast and trusting (offensive coordinator Dave) Warner and what he’s doing and buying into the system,” Jefferson said. “I feel like the transition hasn’t been easy but it hasn’t been hard. It’s just working and doing stuff every day that is making it easier.”
MSU running back Connor Heyward on the impact the young running backs have had this season. The Detroit News
While his move to running back might have surprised some, that’s not the case for his teammates. Heyward said he was stunned when he saw Jefferson’s high school numbers — 2,095 yards rushing with 33 touchdowns while leading Muskegon to a perfect record and a state championship.
“I’m honestly not that surprised because when I saw his stats in high school I was kind of blown away,” Heyward said. “Was he a quarterback or was he a running back? But they said he was a running quarterback but he ran the ball like 30 times a game. I’d never seen anything like that.”
Jefferson doesn’t pine for his days as a quarterback and if Michigan State is working on any trick plays, he wasn’t giving any hints. Instead, he’s focusing on getting better and still having a role when Scott returns.
It might not be exactly how some thought things would play out, but Jefferson never doubted he was headed where he could have an impact.
“I’m a big faith guy and I always prayed about it and kept God first about the situation and we see how it’s all playing out,” Jefferson said. “I wanted to come here and be a part of a winning group of guys and knew that working hard and waiting my turn and maybe a position change, it would all pay off.”