New running backs coach Will Peagler striving to give Spartans leg up in ground game
Will Peagler is young, but there’s no way he was going to come into his first full-time, on-field coaching position and not be prepared.
That’s tougher to do these days as spring practice at Michigan State was wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, but once Peagler joined Mel Tucker’s staff as the running backs coach, he got to work hitting the film room, doing his best to familiarize himself with the Spartans in his room.
“Obviously, I watched a little bit of film on those guys upon getting here,” Peagler said. “I think they are a talented group, I really do. I think they are one of the better groups that’s here on the football team. They are made of the right stuff.”
The 34-year-old Peagler who spent last season as an offensive quality control assistant at Colorado is eager to get to work with the guys he says has the “right stuff.”
At the top of the list is sophomore Elijah Collins. He broke out in Week 2 last season as a redshirt freshman and quickly took over the starting tailback spot, finishing the season as Michigan State’s leading rusher with 988 yards and five touchdowns on 222 carries.
In the short time Peagler has had to work with the players, Collins has stood out.
“You can see on the tape with Elijah that he was an athletic kid,” Peagler said. “The thing that stood out to me is how much weight, how much bigger and thicker he’s gotten over the last year and during the season, you could see him get better over the portion of the year, and I think that’s a credit to him taking care of his body and doing the right things off the field.
“He’s a great kid, that’s the first thing that stands out to me about him is he’s a phenomenal kid, and he works his butt off. When kids work their butt off and they have talent, good things are going to happen and I think he’s a perfect example of that.”
Collins is already emerging as a leader in the room along with Connor Heyward, who is back after a tumultuous 2019. Heyward began the season as the starter, lost the job to Collins, then entered the transfer portal after four games. When Tucker was hired to replace Mark Dantonio, Heyward inquired about returning to Michigan State and Tucker welcomed him back.
Now, Heyward, still a junior, will offer plenty of versatility and experience.
“He’s one of the sharpest guys in the room,” Peagler said. “We talk about our six-man protection and he can answer any question. I actually had him teach the class the other day. Him and Elijah taught our protections to the entire room, and he did a heck of a job.
“I can’t pigeon-hole him into saying he is only a running back. The only thing I’ve seen is the guy can catch the football, he can be multiple. But, as of right now, the plan is running back, but if we find he can help us in different ways, we’re going to do that.”
Peagler will also have the benefit of utilizing Anthony Williams and Brandon Wright, two players who got to play last season as true freshmen. Williams played in 12 games and proved to be versatile in the running and passing game while Wright showed in just six games that he can be a big, physical option in the backfield.
The Spartans will also bring in true freshmen Jordon Simmons and Donovan Eaglin by the time the season starts.
“I obviously haven’t had a lot of opportunity to see those guys on the field, but been really impressed with their mental makeup being in the meetings with them,” Peagler said. “Guys are locked in, they are asking the right type of questions.
“Just the right type of kids, that really stands out to me more than anything.”
It will be up to Peagler, the youngest coach on staff, to help turn around a running game that has lagged in the bottom half of the Big Ten in recent years.
The fact Peagler is getting his first shot at a position group doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s worked with his share of quality coaches, serving as a student assistant at Clemson when Dabo Swinney took over before coaching at the high school and junior college levels. He then served as an assistant quality control coach at Minnesota in 2016, a graduate assistant at Georgia in 2017 and director of player personnel and quality control at Louisiana in 2018 before last season at Colorado.
“I’ve been coaching since I was in college as an undergrad at Clemson,” Peagler said. “So, I’ve been coaching since I was I think I was 20 years old. Maybe in terms of the Division I experience I’m a little limited, but I think I am pretty experienced because I’ve been in all type of different situations and worked with a lot of good football coaches that I’ve leaned on through the years. The inexperience piece doesn’t really concern me just because I think I am ready and I think I’ve been around the right people.”
In addition to his early days with Swinney, this is the third time Peagler has been on staff with Tucker and the fifth time working with offensive coordinator Jay Johnson.
All of that has led to him earning this chance with the Spartans.
“I think you take different pieces from each of those coaches and apply it to your career,” Peagler said. “I think ultimately, that kind of shapes who you are as a coach, learning from all those people, because no one is going to be successful unless they are around the right type of people and I feel like I have been around the right type of people and have learned little things from each, and that’s kind of turned me into what I am now.
“I think the ultimate thing that I’ve learned in this profession is you always have to be ready when your opportunity comes and I think part of why I’m sitting here right now is because I was ready when my opportunity came at Colorado and I proved to Coach Tucker that I was ready.”