Ex-Auburn running back Harold Joiner's athleticism standing out in MSU camp

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It’s not hard to spot Harold Joiner on the football field.

At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, the transfer from Auburn stands out amongst Michigan State’s running backs, and after the first couple of weeks of preseason camp, he’s making it clear he’ll be a factor in the Spartans’ offense this season.

“I really like what Harold Joiner did in the scrimmage,” Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker said. “He was able to get his pads down and run with some authority, and he’s got excellent ball skills out of the backfield.”

Harold Joiner

It’s exactly what Tucker and the Michigan State staff expected when they convinced Joiner to commit to Michigan State. He was one of the most sought-after running backs in the nation when he signed with Auburn as part of the 2018 class. The Birmingham, Ala., native was the No. 5 running back in the country but failed to gain a significant role with the Tigers.

He appeared in one game as a freshman in 2018, carrying the ball three times for 9 yards. As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Joiner played in eight games, gaining 94 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown and caught six passes for 128 yards and a touchdown.

Joiner played in Auburn’s first two games in 2020 but didn’t have a carry or a reception. By October, he had entered the transfer portal, having gained 103 yards on 15 carries with two touchdowns in 17 career games with the Tigers.

At Michigan State, Joiner dives head-first into a crowded position room, one full of talent battling for snaps. The first running back to transfer into the program, Joiner soon was joined by Kenneth Walker III from Wake Forest. Add in junior Elijah Collins, the team’s leading rusher in 2019, sophomore Jordon Simmons, last season’s leading rusher, and redshirt freshman Donovan Eaglin, and the competition is fierce.

But Joiner’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and his high-level athleticism should be enough to lead to a significant role in the Spartans’ offense.

“Harold is long, he can run and … he has he has shown good ball skills to this point,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said.

“So I think you could move him in a lot of different areas. And we've tried to do that a little bit with him."

How exactly Johnson and running backs coach William Peagler utilize each of their backs will be on of the more interesting storylines as the season progresses.

More: Near midway point of camp, Michigan State QB battle rages on: 'It's still an open competition'

It’s good to have plenty of options, but at what point are there too many, if at all?

“I've never had a particular number,” Johnson said when asked how many backs he’d like to use. “I think that's a very fine line in my opinion because sometimes you want the hot guy, but then you can't burn the hot guy out. But then if you're trying to find the hot guy and there's three or four and they're in and out, do they ever get in the tempo or the rhythm?

“It’s a very, very competitive room right now, a very competitive room. That’s exciting. … But I think at the end of day you're going to have a couple of workhorses up front and then the other guys are going to have to find their situation and their role to fit in.”

Coleman impresses

As crowded as the running back room is, things are nearly as busy in the wide receiver room. Juniors Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are the clear leaders of the room and sophomore Tre Mosley has proven to be a s olid No. 3. But the talent doesn’t end there. Johnson singled out the progress from sophomores Montorie Foster and Terry Lockett, as well as redshirt freshman Christian Fitzpatrick, a transfer from Louisville.

One player, though, seems to getting the most attention — freshman Keon Coleman. The 6-4, 210-pounder who has plans to play basketball, has been turning heads in camp. How big his role is this fall remains to be seen.

“He’s continuing to grow there, but as we get a little more work here in the next seven to 10 days, we’ll kind of see where that takes itself,” Johnson said. “Then I think I'll have a better feel, is he a guy that you can use just sparingly and get yourself a matchup or something like that. But right now, we're still in that evaluation tool to have him doing it all and see how he progresses."

More: How a 'sugar weasel' could hold a key to Michigan State's secondary next season

Film lover

There were a couple of funny one-liners from Tucker during his media session on Tuesday.

First, when talking about the freshmen — most of which were recruited virtually — he had an interesting label, one that was perfect for the current climate.

“Those are my Zoom babies,” Tucker said, referencing the online tool used for communicating.

And when he was asked about watching film, Tucker revealed its something he loves to do. In fact, it’s something he needs to do.

“I love to watch a lot of tape,” Tucker said. “It’s kind of like a pacifier. That's my binky.”

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mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau