East Lansing – "Pound Green Pound" is still a phrase used around Michigan State.
For years it described the way the Spartans played on offense. From the days under George Perles all the way through Mark Dantonio, the game plan was to be a team that established the run with talented backs running behind a big, physical offensive line.
However, last season, that plan never took hold as injuries decimated the offensive line and knocked the running game for a loop when senior LJ Scott was injured in the second game of the season and played only five games all year.
With Scott out most of the season, it forced the Spartans to turn to Connor Heyward, then a sophomore, and true freshman La’Darius Jefferson. Both showed flashes, including Heyward’s 157 yards and two touchdowns against Maryland, but the rushing attack never truly got going.
As Michigan State entered preseason camp, determining how the running back room stacked up was one of the offenses primary goals as Heyward and Jefferson were battling redshirt freshman Elijah Collins and freshman Anthony Williams.
Entering No. 18 Michigan State’s season opener Friday night against Tulsa, Heyward is listed as the starter, but Jefferson, Collins and Williams are there, as well, and all could end up getting some carries.
“I see that running back situation as very fluid,” Dantonio said. “Guys are going to get opportunities, especially in the first game of the season. Connor has had a good summer camp, been impressed with really all of our running backs in summer camp. They've adapted to some of the new things, been able to retain other things. We’ll see how they play.”
It’s been quite the transformation for both Heyward and Jefferson.
When Heyward arrived on campus as a freshman in 2017, it was as a three-star athlete. In his first season, he was used in various spots on the offense and had just three rushing attempts all season. He entered 2018 as Scott’s backup but quickly found himself as the primary ball carrier and was learning on the fly.
With a full season under his belt as a running back and an entire off-season, Heyward believes he’s in a much better position.
“I give a lot of props to Coach (Brad) Salem, our position coach and OC,” Heyward said. “I was more of an athlete last year and was taking baby steps. This past offseason I’ve really turned into more of a running back. I could already catch the ball and do all of those things off natural ability, but (Salem) really upped my game, just working on those extra steps and just be more of a running back and hitting that hole. He’s really, I think, upped everybody's game in the running back room.”
Heyward led Michigan State in rushing last season, gaining 529 yards on 118 carries for an average of 4.5 yards per carry. He added five touchdowns while catching 32 passes for 249 yards.
But Heyward thinks his maturation as a player will lead to in increase in all of those numbers.
“A running back has to be able to catch the ball, run the ball and, obviously, block,” Heyward said. “You have to know what you're doing. I honestly feel like my football intelligence has increased with Coach Salem, not knowing just what the running back is doing, but everybody else around you so that everything makes sense.”
The move to running back last season was as much of an adjustment for Jefferson. A quarterback at Muskegon, Jefferson made his debut against Arizona State after Scott got hurt and served as Heyward’s primary backup from there. He finished the season with 255 yards on 78 carries with two touchdowns, highlighted by gaining 60 yards and scoring a touchdown in a win over Penn State.
“It was more just running on instinct,” Jefferson said. “It was just trusting my abilities to get me out of some situations.”
Throughout the offseason, Jefferson said he’s worked hard to become more than just a guy running on instinct.
“Just all of the little detail things to become a true running back, I didn’t really now all that,” Jefferson said. “I really wanted to work on balance and just patience, seeing the hole. I just turned myself into a true running back and I feel like I'm doing that each and every day. I’m studying film and just seeing stuff, seeing where the holes should be, just trying to be a master of our offense.”
While Heyward and Jefferson are likely to get the bulk of the carries early in the season, Collins and Williams should get a shot, too.
Collins played in three games last season to preserve his redshirt and carried the ball just twice for 8 yards. Williams enrolled early and went through spring practice but suffered an injury early in preseason camp, leaving his status for Friday’s opener in doubt.
“It takes time,” Dantonio said. “All these guys are relatively young players. Connor is a junior, but he played the most last year. These are young players. You're waiting for them to bust out. This is their opportunity to make some strides. We're going to go from there.
“It will be interesting to see how some of these other young players play as well. They'll have their opportunities as we go.”