East Lansing — For a few astute Michigan State observers last Saturday at Northwestern, worry began to creep in late in the second half.
Not because Michigan State was in danger of losing a game it had firmly in control, but because one of the Spartans’ young emerging stars suddenly was sitting on a cart, riding to the locker room. There was redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins being taken in for X-rays on his hand.
Minutes later Collins was back on the sidelines, no worse for wear, ready to go back in if needed. The potential crisis averted, it appeared.
“We took him out as a precaution just to get a quick X-ray,” coach Mark Dantonio said, “but he’s fine.”
Collins confirmed that diagnosis on Tuesday after practice as No. 25 Michigan State prepared to take on Indiana at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
“I just had a little pain go through my hand,” Collins said. “Nothing serious.”
Michigan State's Brian Lewerke, Elijah Collins and Joe Bachie talk about this weekend's matchup with Indiana. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
What’s interesting is that when Michigan State (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) took the field for the season opener against Tulsa, a potential injury to Collins might not have moved the needle. After all, junior Connor Heyward was the starter, and sophomore La’Darius Jefferson was his primary backup. They were the only two returning back with experience, making them the logical choices to step in with the departure of LJ Scott.
For Collins and true freshman Anthony Williams, it appeared the opportunities to crack the rotation would be minimal.
What a difference a few weeks makes.
Collins started the second week against Western Michigan, ran for 192 yards and hasn’t looked back. He’s established himself as the clear leader in the backfield with 357 yards on 61 carries while Williams, who missed the opener with an eye infection, has seen his chances increase the past two weeks.
Meanwhile, Heyward is being used primarily on passing downs because of his pass blocking and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield while Jefferson was relegated to mop-up duty last week.
The rotation, needless to say, has been flipped in just four games.
“It's challenging,” Dantonio said. “I would say it's always challenging because everybody wants to play, and they have had success. But everybody has an opportunity to do things every day in practice. We're going to always play the best player or the player who is playing the best. Maybe I should say, the player who is playing the best at that moment.
“So it changes. I'm going to try and make sure that we ride the hot back, and make sure that they have opportunities in practice to show what they have got and then we evaluate game film and productivity and try and take it from there.”
There have been times in recent years when the Spartans have had to juggle carries in the backfield. In 2010 and 2011, Le’Veon Bell, Edwin Baker and Larry Caper were all pushing for carries while Scott and Gerald Holmes often divided rushing attempts during their time together from 2015-17.
However, if things keep heading in the direction they are now, Collins is quickly establishing himself as the lead back while Williams appears to have a similar burst when hitting the line of scrimmage. That, of course, could lead to Heyward and Jefferson to continue to see limited playing time.
“It’s hard to play four different guys,” offensive coordinator and running backs coach Brad Salem said. “Elijah has sort of put himself up there and is running the ball well and makes plays in space, makes guys miss and gets positive yardage. Anthony has been out and is getting himself back into so we’re trying to see what he can do.”
It’s all in an effort to improve a running attack that was among the worst in the Big Ten last season. With Scott battling injuries most of the season, Heyward took over as the starter and led the team with 529 yards on 118 carries with five touchdowns. Jefferson ended up the primary backup, gaining 255 yards on 78 carries with two touchdowns.
But like Bell did in 2011, Collins is starting to put some distance between himself and the other backs, meaning he’ll continue to get the bulk of the carries.
It’s a role Collins relishes, but one he insists hasn’t affected chemistry.
“In the running back room we’re brothers at the end of the day,” Collins said. “Before we were all running backs we were all cool coming in, things of that nature. So at the end of day, they’re my brothers and I live and die for them.”
Collins and the Spartans will be looking to continue to improve their rushing numbers against an Indiana team that is allowing 127.3 yards a game on the ground, including 306 yards in a loss to Ohio State.
It could be the perfect matchup for an offense that is trying desperately to find some consistency behind veteran quarterback Brian Lewerke, and Collins’ emergence is a big part of the attack.
“As things keep going and we progress, of course I get more comfortable,” Collins said. “Getting consistency in the offense is great. We keep coming out, keep firing off the ball. Our offensive line is playing well, receivers are playing well, and Brian is playing well.
“All of us clicking on all cylinders is what we’re trying to do.”