East Lansing — Michigan State’s depth chart was missing a couple of familiar names Tuesday.
As No. 25 Michigan State continued to prepare for Saturday’s trip to Columbus to take on No. 4 Ohio State, it did so with running back Connor Heyward and linebacker Brandon Bouyer-Randle now in the NCAA transfer portal.
Bouyer-Randle, a fourth-year junior, made the move late last week and coach Mark Dantonio offered his support for the linebacker after the victory over Indiana. What wasn’t clear at that time was the status of Heyward, who started the season opener before giving way to redshirt freshman Elijah Collins before playing a smaller role the next three games. Against Indiana, Heyward was nowhere to be found for what Dantonio called at the time “personal reasons.”
“We wish Connor the best,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “He's a tremendous young man. He's a good football player. He brings value to our football program, but it just sort of is what it is, and you have to deal with it from that perspective, and I'm going to deal with it in a positive way. That's the only way that I can approach things.”
Heyward led Michigan State in rushing last season, gaining 529 yards on 118 carries with five touchdowns.
He entered this season as the starter, but after Collins exploded for 192 yards in a week-two victory over Western Michigan, Heyward’s role began to diminish.
In four games, Heyward gained just 79 yards on 24 carries and saw most of his action in third-down situations.
His departure is a hit to the Spartans’ running back depth. After Collins, true freshman Anthony Williams is slowly getting more opportunities while sophomore La’Darius Jefferson, after contemplating a redshirt season, is moving into more of the third-down role that Heyward had.
“We've got to be productive at that position,” Dantonio said. “I don't think there's any question you must be productive at that position. So that's sort of a collective thing because you've got to block, too. You've got to have the right things from a conceptual standpoint going on as well.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio previews his team's matchup with Ohio State this weekend. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
“Those guys can all be 1-3 as you shake it out. Right now, No. 1 is Elijah Collins, he's sort of proven that fact, but any one of those three guys can come in, and we've got a couple of guys waiting in the wing beyond that, too.”
As for the changing environment that allows players to enter the transfer portal along with not losing a year if they play four games or less, Dantonio is simply doing his best to adjust, understanding that’s how it’s going to be for every team.
“Well, I don't ever expect any (to transfer), but I think this is a sign of the times a little bit,” Dantonio said. “I'm always going to take the position that, ‘Hey, whatever you think is best for you. If you don't think it's best to be here, then it probably isn't because you're not all in.’ We've got competition at running back. I don't think there's any question about that, that there's been competition there.
"I think at this point in time we have a No. 1 running back.”
And that meant it was time to go for the guy who was No. 2.
Dantonio was asked Tuesday if he could compare Ohio State defensive end Chase Young to any player he’s coached for or against.
“I would say I really haven't thought of him in the human context,” Dantonio said.
Dantonio was trying to say he doesn’t really compare players when game-planning against them, instead simply looking at that players ability. But based on the numbers, maybe Young does seem like a machine.
Through five games, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound junior leads the nation with eight sacks and has now recorded at least one sack in seven straight games.
“I don't really think of him in terms of, ‘Oh, he's just like so and so,’” Dantonio said. “I just look at him like a guy who's extremely productive, making big plays out there. We have to be able to control him to some degree because he can wreck a football game.
“They've had guys down there like him in the past. Everybody's had a guy like that in the past at some point in time. But I can't put a comparison on it. I just think he's a very, very good football player.”
Reed won't play
Dantonio confirmed Tuesday that transfer wide receiver Jayden Reed will not be able to play this season.
“He won't be eligible this year,” Dantonio said. “We've got to sit him. There's just too many different things that have gone through that he won't qualify. We can't make that exception for him, or the NCAA won't make that exception for him.”
Reed was a freshman All-American with the Broncos last season, catching 56 passes for 797 yards and eight touchdowns. He decided in the off-season to transfer and will be eligible next season.