Spartans in need of a breakout back to emerge from pack

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Running back Anthony Williams Jr. (34), a true freshman, stood out in Michigan State's annual spring football game.

East Lansing — The last time Brad Salem was coaching running backs, a guy named Le’Veon Bell was rushing for 1,793 yards and blazing a path to NFL stardom.

After six seasons as Michigan State’s quarterbacks coach, Salem is now back leading the running backs as part of the staff shuffling that also saw Salem become the Spartans’ offensive coordinator.

This time around, the odds of another Bell having a breakout season are long, but that doesn’t keep Salem from a little wishful thinking.

“I hope so,” Salem said with a big smile this week when asked if one of Michigan State’s young stable of backs could become the next star.

It never hurts to have that sort of running back come along, and for the Spartans, they’ll take whatever they can get. A program that has long prided itself on running the ball featuring the likes of Bell, Javon Ringer and Jeremy Langford during the Mark Dantonio era, Michigan State struggled to find any sort of consistency with its rushing attack in 2018.

It led to the larger issue of an offense that couldn’t score but ranking 13th in the Big Ten last season in rushing offense at 124.8 yards a game was a significant reason. Connor Heyward’s 157 yards in the win over Maryland was the only 100-yard rushing game of the season. That’s the only time a Dantonio-coached team at Michigan State has managed just one 100-yard game from one of its backs.

It didn’t help that senior LJ Scott missed all but five games with a leg injury, forcing Heyward, in his first season playing solely at running back, and freshman La’Darius Jefferson, a high school quarterback, to shoulder the load.

Heyward showed flashes, leading the Spartans with 529 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns while averaging 4.5 yards a carry. Jefferson's moments were fewer, but he has the size and speed to be a factor if he settles into the position.

“Connor is two years into this, so he should be adjusted to it,” Dantonio said as he broke down the top two returning running backs. “Also La'Darius is now in his second year. Basically, Muskegon High School used him as pretty much as a running back. He ran for over 2,000 yards, so he had plenty of opportunities to do the different things he needed to do.”

But it’s not a given the Spartans will simply let Heyward and Jefferson to continue to carry the rock.

Elijah Collins, now a redshirt freshman, saw action in three games last season and played well in the spring. And true freshman Anthony Williams Jr. was an early enrollee who stood out in the spring game.

“We also have the other guys,” Dantonio said. “I think Elijah Collins is a much-improved football player. We've got a couple of freshmen as well. So it's going to be interesting to watch those guys in terms of how this plays out in summer camp.”

Heyward is confident he can become the primary ball-carrier in Salem’s new offense, one that has yet to be revealed. Heyward said it was tough last season knowing the defense was playing at an elite level while the offense couldn’t get going.

However, he has seen a shift this offseason.

“No days off, Coach D holds us to that standard,” Heyward said. “We have had some valuable leaders step up and we have an amazing defense that we need to be comparable to. It was hard on the defense last year and it was embarrassing for us as an offense, but we have put that in the past and use it as fuel.”

The wild card in the running back race is likely the 6-foot, 194-pound Williams. A three-star recruit from Bolingbrook, Ill., Williams opened some eyes in the spring game.

“He reminds me a lot of Jeremy Langford, a lot of the ways he runs and things he's able to do,” Dantonio said. “It's going to be the little things outside of carrying the football are the things that really will finally define him. How does he pass protect or catch the ball out of the backfield or whatever we ask him to do?

“He's a productive player. You can go to any practice and see that he produces. So it will be exciting to watch him grow.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau