MSU running back Elijah Collins in rush to show breakout season is sign of things to come

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

A year ago, Elijah Collins was just hoping to get a shot.

Nearly 1,000 yards rushing and five touchdowns later, the sophomore running back knows things have changed.

“People want my spot,” Collins said, “and I know that.”

Michigan State running back Elijah Collins had a breakthrough season in 2019, rushing for 988 yards on 222 carries and five touchdowns.

That spot, of course, is as Michigan State’s No. 1 running back, and it’s something Collins aspired to when the 2019 season began. After redshirting and appearing in only a handful of plays in 2018, Collins entered last season as the primary backup to junior Connor Heyward. By Week 2, Collins was the starter and never gave up that spot.

In a win over Western Michigan, Collins rambled for 192 yards and never looked back. By the end of the season, Collins finished 12 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards (988), averaging 76 yards a game and earning third-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and an honorable mention spot from the coaches.

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And as the Spartans prepare to open the season Oct. 24 against Rutgers, there’s no doubt who the No. 1 guy is in the backfield. The key for Collins now is to prove that last year was simply the beginning.

“I’ve already put it behind me because I know I could have done better,” Collins said during a virtual chat with reporters after practice on Monday. “There’s a lot of things I didn’t know, but after playing and looking at my own film and studying a lot, I mean, I want to have a better year. But it's like a whole new year. It’s 2020. So, for me, I want to go out there and show these coaches what I can do.

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“We have a whole new coaching staff, so there is no loyalty to nobody. The best man is going to play here. So I go out there and work as hard as everybody else, every single day.”

Collins is right. Things have changed at Michigan State and what happened last year might not hold much weight as Mel Tucker has taken over. The entire offensive staff is new, led by coordinator Jay Johnson and running backs coach William Peagler.

But that staff certainly understands the potential of Collins and the U-D Jesuit product is already buying in with Tucker, Johnson and Peagler.

“Coach Johnson, he wants to make plays,” Collins said. “He sees all the talent we have in the running back room, and also on the offense. He just wants to make plays. He wants to move the ball, he wants to spread ball around so we can open our running lanes and have those running lanes like every team in the country has. He wants us to get out there and make plays.

“And working with Coach Peagler has been amazing. He’s worked with some great backs, so I’m just learning from him, soaking up everything he's telling me, no matter whether it is big or small.”

Michigan State running back Elijah Collins races down the sideline against Illinois Nov. 9, 2019.

Even with Collins’ success last season, nothing his being handed to him entering the 2020 season. Heyward is back after contemplating a transfer, providing plenty of veteran leadership for the Spartans, while sophomore speedster Anthony Williams returns after carrying the ball 38 times last season along with sophomore Brandon Wright, who played in the final six games.

Add in the arrival of freshmen Jordon Simmons and Donovan Eaglin and there will be plenty of competition for carries.

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Of course, Collins is welcoming it all. And it’s not because he believes he’s superior to his teammates. Instead, it’s because he sees value in each of the backs in the room.

“I want everybody to be able to be a starter because at end of day the best guy’s going to win out,” Collins said. “And I want guys to push me, too. People want my spot, and I know that, so it's gonna bring the best out of me as well.”

Collins understood that competition was coming, so he did his best during an uncertain offseason to be ready when the Spartans finally did get back on the field. He focused mainly on his running mechanics and speed, lamenting his big runs last season that came up short of the end zone.

“I never really broke any home,” Collins said. “That’s one thing I really wanted to focus on, getting that breakaway speed and really finishing my runs.”

Collins will need some help to do so, which means continuity along the offensive line will help. Getting the quarterback spot straightened out will help, too, but there is little doubt the Spartans will be relying on Collins to carry the load.

It’s something Collins is ready for, though he knows he’ll have to continue to earn his chances.

“Me and Coach Tuck talked a lot about it,” Collins said. “(He’s) like, ‘How bad do you want it, because you got some pretty talented younger guys?’ And it's like, I want it really bad. I did a lot of these things in high school and I’ve done it my whole life, so trying to replicate that is probably one of the hardest things that I've done.

“So, I just really want to do this.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau