East Lansing — Michigan State’s offense won the first scrimmage of preseason camp last Friday, and that alone is worth noting.
Sure, those scrimmages played long before the opening kickoff of the season can often be manipulated by the coaching staff, but it’s still an eye-opener considering how good Michigan State’s defense is and how bad its offense was a year ago.
But buried deep in the postgame analysis coach Mark Dantonio provided before Monday’s practice was the update on the running back battle.
“Running backs looked good,” Dantonio said. “Offense looked good. The offense actually won the scrimmage. I guess that’s a noticeable thing there. Elijah Collins looked good. (Connor) Heyward looked good. All four of them really looked good.”
All four includes sophomore La’Darius Jefferson and true freshman Anthony Williams — a four-man battle to see who emerges as the primary ball-carrier in the Spartans’ revamped offense.
And while it might seem insignificant, the first name Dantonio mentioned was Collins. The redshirt freshman saw action in three games last season, preserving his redshirt as he carried the ball twice for 8 yards in the win over Rutgers and saw primarily special teams work against Maryland and Nebraska.
Ranked the 25th best running back in the nation by 247Sports.com in 2018, the former UD-Jesuit standout might just be on the verge of getting his chance to shine.
“Potentially,” Collins said, “but it’s a tough battle. The guys back there, they can do it all, just like I can. So it’s like whoever wants it.”
Whoever wants it, indeed.
It’s not like the role will just be handed to Collins. Heyward was Michigan State’s leading rusher last season, gaining 529 yards on 118 carries in his first season playing primarily as a running back. And Jefferson, who was making the transition from quarterback in high school, got the bulk of the backup work after LJ Scott went down with an injury, carrying the ball 78 times for 255 yards.
Throw in the impressive play of Williams, who enrolled last spring, and it’s a crowded room.
But Collins knows what the Spartans are looking for and hopes he can provide it.
“Coach D said he wants a back who can get 200 runs this season and 1,000 yards,” Collins said. “That guy is going to have to be a workhorse. He’s gonna have to carry a lot of the load and be able to do it all — block, run, catch — everything.”
Collins admits his progress has been slow, but the work he did get last season and going through a full spring have helped him become a better runner.
“For me, it’s not just trying to run the ball,” Collins said, “but being patient and learning where defenses and linebackers are set up and where they want you to go, rather than just finding a hole and trying to burst through it. Now you try to set up people and make them miss before you even get to them.
“In the spring I was still learning a lot. Now I’m able to work in-depth on what’s going on, and before it happens I can tell what potentially can happen. So I think I’m a step ahead. I’m really starting to get there, I just need to continue to run with my shoulders in front of me and run aggressively and run downhill and do what comes naturally.”
What has always come naturally for Collins is running the ball. As a senior at Jesuit, Collins ran for 1,076 yards and nine touchdowns on 134 carries. As a junior he had 14 rushing touchdowns while finishing with 19 total, getting one each rushing, receiving, kick return and interception return.
Needless to say, Collins has a nose for the end zone once he gets the ball. But he understands to become a top player in the Big Ten and join the Spartans’ running back rotation, he’ll need to do more.
“In high school, it’s just get the ball and go,” he said. “After contact, I didn’t even think about it, I would just fall forward, but now it’s like when you get to the hole, you want to put your pads down and get the extra two or three yards.”
But that’s not all. In addition to playing on multiple special teams, Collins is working hard on being reliable as an every-down back.
“For me, something I need to work on is definitely pass pro(tection),” Collins said. “In high school, we didn’t really block much; just give me the ball. But now we have to read the defenses. That’s something (running backs) Coach (Brad) Salem is really helping out with, helping us learn defenses and learn fronts so that when it comes to pass pro we know what we’re doing.”
Once he becomes a better pass blocker there seems little doubt the coaching staff will become more comfortable with Collins on the field. And if he has a breakout season, he could be the primary back.
But even Collins understands the Spartans have plenty of options.
“I can definitely see a combination because we have two really good backs in La’Darius and Connor,” Collins said. “They can pretty much do it all. And then I’m kind of stepping up and feeling it out a little bit, still learning though. It’s a long process but at the end of the day we have tremendous backs back there.”