East Lansing – There used to be a phrase that was heard often around the Michigan State football program.
“Pound, green, pound.”
It described the way the Spartans intended to win games, by running the ball down the throat of their opponent. From George Perles to Mark Dantonio, Michigan State wanted to control the game on the ground, eating up the clock and putting pressure on the opposition.
For most of Dantonio’s tenure, it was a winning formula. Javon Ringer, Le’Veon Bell, Jeremy Langford and LJ Scott are just a few of the names that found success running over teams in the Big Ten. In 2014, the Spartans gained better than 235 yards a game on the ground and the next season, in the conference championship game against Iowa, the Spartans put together a 22-play drive to win the game that featured 14 running plays, including Scott stretching the ball over the goal line for the decisive touchdown.
But like the rest of the offense, the last four years have not gone well. In just the last two seasons, Michigan State had one of the nation’s worst rushing attacks, ranking 114th in 2018 and 113th last season.
The goal for first-year coach Mel Tucker is to not only breathe some life into the offense, but getting the ball moving on the ground once again. The man at the front of that fight is offensive line coach and running game coordinator Chris Kapilovic.
“As we build this thing,” Kapilovic said, “you’re going to see an offense that wants to be able to run the ball, wants to be physical and wants to be able to finish games when you have that lead, being able to finish it by running the ball. And again, if everybody can say, ‘Man those guys are playing hard and are physical,’ I think we’ve found something.”
Finding that has been made more difficult because practice has been shut down, forcing the Spartans and teams around the country to do what they can through virtual meetings in front of a computer screen.
That leads to some variables that are tough for Kapilovic and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson when it comes to finding the right combination of offensive linemen.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity for spring practices to this point,” Kapilovic said. “You kind of get an idea of what they are capable of and maybe you see something that you might be able to help them with (by watching film), but you really like to come to your own conclusion from working with them on the field.”
The Spartans are not short on pieces to work with. Thanks to a handful of injuries, they used seven starting combinations last season while 11 players started at least one game.
Right tackle Jordan Reid is the constant, starting all 13 games. From there, though, it was a rotating group of young and old. Freshmen Nick Samac and J.D. Duplain got plenty of work in the interior of the offensive line while Devontae Dobbs played four games and retained his redshirt. Matt Allen is back for his final season and figures into the interior rotation while veterans like Blake Bueter and Luke Campbell are versatile.
The return of Kevin Jarvis is also critical. After staring at right guard his first two seasons, he moved to left tackle last year before an injury forced him to miss all but three games.
“He seems to be pretty healthy and he’s definitely invested in learning the new offense and the things I want them to do,” Kapilovic said of Jarvis.
Finding the right mix will be critical for Kapilovic, who said he’d like to have eight or nine guys ready to play at any moment, but the key is developing as a unit.
“Without the cohesion, they haven’t had five guys work together, it doesn’t seem like, all year from just this past season,” he said. “If we can find a way to stay healthy, that will just help in its own right. It’s very difficult to be a great offensive line when you are constantly changing pieces and having to bring in new guys. … But I do think I see some talent there, there’s some size, there’s some guys who have athletic ability. I believe we have the potential to be a good offensive line.
“But there’s nothing better than competition. If I could say that I had eight guys I could count on, I could have a third tackle, third guard and even possibly another center that could get reps, that would be great.”
If the offensive line comes together, there’s a good chance the Spartans running game could get rolling once again.
Sophomore Elijah Collins began to emerge last season with 988 yards on 222 attempts and will returns as the likely starter. He’ll be joined by fellow sophomores Anthony Williams and Brandon Wright, as well as the return of junior Connor Heyward, the opening day starter last season who planned to transfer but changed his mind.
Add the arrival of a handful of incoming freshmen and there will be plenty of competition in the backfield, as well.
“I like the running back position,” Johnson said. “From what I’ve been able to see of those guys, a very talented group.”
Only time will tell, but there’s no doubt the Spartans will try and revive the old saying, ‘Pound, green, pound.’