New competition could help Michigan State get running game back on track

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The numbers are so bad, they’re hard to ignore.

For a program that’s foundation was built by running the ball, Michigan State last season became one of least productive teams in the country when it comes to moving the ball on the ground.

Connor Heyward was part of a Michigan State rushing attack that averaged only 91.4 yards per game.

The old “Pound Green, pound,” mantra has lost its luster as the Spartans have been unable to consistently run the ball, a trend that has been slowly going in the wrong direction dating to the playoff season of 2015.

In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, things didn’t get any better under new coach Mel Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. Yes, the new staff had little time to prepare and it’s hard to find any cohesion with a limited preseason camp and only seven games.

But the fact Michigan State averaged only 91.4 rushing yards a game was alarming. The Spartans were 13th in the Big Ten in rushing offense and 122nd in the nation out of 127 teams. Freshman Jordon Simmons’ 219 yards led the team as Michigan State managed to gain more than 100 yards as a team just twice.

It’s not something that’s solved by simply handing the ball to somebody else. As Tucker has pointed out often, the breakdowns in Michigan State’s running game have come from every facet — the backs, the blocking and sometimes the scheme.

Still, Michigan State’s running attack needed a spark, and Tucker has spent the offseason trying to create one through the transfer portal and in recruiting. The Spartans signed four offensive linemen to the 2021 class and brought in Arkansas State tackle Jarrett Horst, who is enrolled and going through spring practice.

And in the backfield, there have been several additions. Oak Park’s Davion Primm signed in December while the Spartans landed a pair of transfers — Kenneth Walker III of Wake Forest and Harold Joiner of Auburn. Walker, who scored 13 touchdowns in 2020, is on campus and taking part in spring practice while Joiner, rated one of the top running back prospects in the nation coming out of high school, is expected to arrive in the summer.

Add them to a room that includes Simmons, senior Connor Heyward, junior Elijah Collins — the team’s leading rusher in 2019 — and freshman Donovan Eaglin, and it’s a crowded room but one that will likely create plenty of competition.

Running back Jordon Simmons was the Spartans' leading rusher last season.

“Everybody's mindset is that everybody wants to be the guy, no matter if you're the running back or quarterback,” Heyward said as spring practice began Tuesday. “But running back you play multiple guys, you don't just play one guy. Everybody, I feel like in our room, brings a different skill set to the table. And, you know, everybody's going to go out there and just compete every day. I feel like that just makes the man next to you better, as an individual and as a football player.”

That’s what the Spartans are banking on.

The poor production from last season follows two years of similar woes. Michigan State averaged 127.2 rushing yards a game in 2019 and 124.8 in 2018, which ranked 13th in the Big Ten. Those numbers came after the running production steadily declined in 2016 and 2017.

The goal now is to reverse that trend and get Michigan State’s offense closer to the record-breaking levels of 2014, as well as the playoff season a year later when the numbers were nearly as impressive. Heyward believes there are early signs the Spartans are headed in the right direction.

“I definitely can tell that all of us have gotten in better shape offensively, defensively and our coaching staff is going to continue to push us,” Heyward said. “No practice is going to be easy. But Kenneth is a really good, quick guy, a quick-twitch guy, strong back. But I think we all have different skill sets. Elijah, I feel like he's gotten his weight back up. Jordon is getting stronger. Donovan Eaglin, he's looking nice.”

In other words, the running back race appears to be anyone’s to win. And, as Heyward pointed out, it won’t be a one-man show.

And there’s no telling if that room looks the same by the time preseason camp begins. Tucker said more attrition would not be a surprise over the summer and that every player, no matter what they’ve done in the past, will have to earn their spot.

“Everyone on our roster is important, and our coaches know that and we're tasked with developing every guy, whether he is a walk-on or was a scholarship player,” Tucker said. “So everything is wide open — positions, roster spots, depth charts, rep charts. There's nothing set in stone and so guys that are on our roster right now have an opportunity to step up and compete and show us what they can do. We’ll work really, really hard to develop them and see what emerges in the spring.

“We have some good football players on this team, but they're all at different stages of development. What we have to do is we have to get as many guys ready to play winning football as we can.”

And that starts with who’s carrying the football. Get that straightened out, and the offense could take off.

“I definitely think people will be surprised,” Heyward said. “I don't think people have us really doing anything, We went 2-5 last year, which was terrible. But I think you’ll see a disciplined football team, a hard-working football team, a team that's just going to go out there and lay it all out.

“We just have all this talent, and with all the work we put in, the sky's the limit.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau