'Focused' Elijah Collins fighting to regain place in MSU's ground game

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
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When Michigan State takes the field at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, there will be no shortage of attention paid to the quarterback position as sophomore Payton Thorne and graduate transfer Anthony Russo try to gain an advantage in the race to be the starter.

There will be eyes on the defense, too, as starters are being replaced at linebacker and in the secondary. Similar attention will likely be paid to the offensive line, a position that has seen its share of shuffling the past few seasons without much success.

However, there’s one other spot that will be under the microscope, and potentially, one player. A forgotten player, on some levels.

Michigan State running back Elijah Collins averaged 2.2 yards per carry last season.

That, of course, is running back and where junior Elijah Collins stacks up in a crowded backfield could be one of the more revealing pieces of information coming out of the spring workouts.

According to coach Mel Tucker, the Spartans’ leading rusher from two seasons ago has been impressive.

“l like what Elijah is doing,” Tucker said last week. “He’s gained weight, he’s gotten stronger, he looks more explosive. He's hitting the hole with velocity, and keeping his feet moving on contact and he's falling forward for two. He’s running with authority.”

That’s a bit of a revelation considering how the 2020 season played out for Collins. He entered the year expecting to be Michigan State’s primary ball carrier. Instead, he became a seldom-used extra piece to a running back group that never really got rolling.

The numbers showed how poorly the Spartans ran the ball, averaging just more than 91 yards over seven games. And the fact Collins managed only 41 carries for 90 yards made the lack of production even tougher to deal with. After all, Collins had emerged as the Spartans’ top back in 2019, gaining 988 yards and scoring five touchdowns as he recorded three 100-yard rushing games — a career-high 192 vs. Western Michigan, 170 vs. Illinois and 109 vs. Rutgers — to become the first Spartan freshman to do so since Javon Ringer in 2005.

But when Michigan State opened the season against Rutgers, it was Connor Heyward who started in the backfield. Collins carried the ball nine times for 3 yards and was never a big part of the rotation from that point forward. Heyward started six of seven games with freshman Jordon Simmons starting the other. Collins’ best game came in the win over Northwestern with 13 carries for 34 yards.

Simmons ended as Michigan State’s leading rusher with 219 yards on 56 attempts, but Tucker made a concerted effort this offseason to add some talent to the position. Kenneth Walker III has been impressive this spring after transferring from Wake Forest, where he scored 13 touchdowns last season, and Michigan State is expecting Auburn transfer Harold Joiner to join the team this summer as well as incoming freshman Davion Primm.

Even with Brandon Wright moving to defensive end, it’s created a fight for carries that should benefit the offense.

“We’ve added some new players and the end result of that is to get more competition,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “We think that will make everybody better. I definitely feel that with those additions we’re already improved there, and it’s making guys competitive. But at this point, I would definitely say it’s running back by committee.”

The fact Collins has a shot to be a part of that committee seems likely, at least at this point.

“I like the way he's trending,” Tucker said. “He’s improving. He and I have sat down and had conversations about it. He’s very focused and he knows his best football is ahead of him.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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