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Michigan State reworks running back plans with Jefferson intending to transfer

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State doesn’t need to find a No. 1 running back.

Redshirt freshman Elijah Collins put a stranglehold on that spot after running for 192 yards in Week 2 and nothing has happened since that would change the pecking order on the depth chart.

La'Darius Jefferson

But after sophomore La’Darius Jefferson entered the NCAA transfer portal on Tuesday, just two weeks after junior Connor Heyward first made the same move, the Spartans are starting to get thin in the backfield, leaving the coaching staff suddenly looking to fill holes just six games into the season.

“I mean, you can't prepare for it,” offensive coordinator and running backs coach Brad Salem said after practice on Tuesday night. “You just gotta adjust to what the situation is.

“That's what you do, you find answers for what would happen if things like that happen. You've got the two guys obviously that you've been working with this year and so just got to have answers if something comes up.”

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Well, something has come up.

Heyward was the first to go after the fourth game of the season and Jefferson, who according to coach Mark Dantonio contemplated taking a redshirt season, became the latest early on Tuesday, a move he confirmed to The News and one Michigan State acknowledged on Tuesday evening.

“You just don’t know in the day and age we're in,” Salem said. “But we wish those guys the best and you just got to deal with your situation here and who's here, and so the guys that are here, they’ve got to rise up and play.”

Those guys are obviously Collins, who leads Michigan State with 476 yards rushing and three touchdowns, as well as freshman Anthony Williams. As Heyward and then Jefferson saw their roles diminish to mostly third-down work, it was Williams who was spelling Collins. He’s carried just 19 times for 50 yards, but Williams had clearly become the No. 2 option.

The Spartans are in this position not only because Jefferson and Heyward wanted bigger roles, but because of the emergence of Collins.

“It's just hard to take Elijah off the field,” Salem said. “It’s similar to what happened when you get sort of the lead back and a guy rolling and so you're looking at, ‘Do I put (someone else) in or you know, take Elijah off?’ So there's certain situational things you can do, but his role’s gonna have to grow.”

It’s not a position Collins was certain he’d be in when the season began. Heyward was Michigan State’s leading rusher last season, gaining 529 yards while Jefferson picked up another 225 as the duo filled in for the injured LJ Scott.

Entering preseason camp, it seemed the two would again share the work, but Collins quickly changed that with Williams overcoming an early eye infection to continue to push for playing time.

“It’s a little crazy,” Collins admitted. “I mean, just everything kind of changed pretty fast. So now just being the most experienced running back in the room is kind of surprising, but at the end of day I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do and that's play football.”

As Michigan State (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) prepares to head to Madison on Saturday to take on No. 8 Wisconsin, it feels like its depth at running back is OK barring any other setbacks like an injury.

Salem said he believes Collins has what it takes to see an increased workload while Williams will be counted on more. Also, walk-on Alante Thomas might join the travel roster while true freshman Brandon Wright could be pressed into action. He has yet to play a game this season but did travel last week to Ohio State for the first time.

“He's been in and out and all throughout and doing some scout team,” Salem said, “but he’s a guy that's been through fall camp and understands the offense.”

Collins did come out of the Ohio State game in the final minutes, holding the back of his right leg. On Tuesday he said he was just dealing with cramps and nothing would keep him from playing at Wisconsin.

While Collins avoided anything significant, it does highlight how thin the backfield is and Salem said they can’t think about redshirts at this point, meaning if Wright is needed for more than four games, then so be it.

“You're not worried about class right now,” Salem said. “You're worried about running backs and playing Saturday against Wisconsin.”

Even with the emergence of Collins, losing two veteran players still stings for teammates and coaches.

“You coach them and you're with them and get to know them as people,” Salem said, “so you wish them the best and then you just gotta move on to our guys and we’ve got a game this weekend. So we’ve got to figure out who the other backs are.”

Salem said he thought the remaining running backs had a good practice on Tuesday while admitting that you never know exactly how guys will react to close friends leaving the team.

Collins, happy with his position on the team, said he understood Jefferson and Heyward opting to move on.

“I think they're doing what’s best for them,” Collins said. “At the end of the day you all have one goal, to play at the next level eventually. So I mean, they’re just doing what's best for them.

“I mean, those are my brothers. Connor and La’Darius are both my brothers and I love them to death.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau