Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett and co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner talking about playing Bowling Green.
East Lansing — It’s a good problem to have.
That, of course, is what you often hear from coaches when they’re having a hard time settling on one player at a particular position. The good part is the fact there is more than one player with the chance to stand out. The problem, of course, is that there is only one spot available.
That’s where Michigan State finds itself with its running backs. In fact, it’s the exact same position the Spartans were in for the 2015 season as well as 2016.
With the 2017 season set to kick off on Saturday against Bowling Green, the familiar scenario is still in play with the fight for carries being pitted between fifth-year senior Gerald Holmes and juniors LJ Scott and Madre London.
“It’s sort of been that way for years. I don’t think it’s anything different,” co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner said. “Those guys are always competing, and it’s pretty much the same this year as it’s been the last couple years as far as the talent level with all three of them. It’s just depending on the situation probably who’s gonna be playing for us.”
For the past two seasons, Warner and head coach Mark Dantonio have consistently said they will go with the “hot hand,” meaning whichever of the three backs appears most effective will get the most work.
Of course, getting an idea early in the game might be easy with two backs, but with three, it’s especially difficult. More often, one of the three is the odd man out. Last season it was London, who carried the ball just 28 times after getting 119 attempts in 2015.
London started the first six games in 2015 before an injury sidelined him for three games. He carried the ball just 24 times the rest of the season, giving way to Scott and Holmes. It played out that way for much of 2016 as well as Scott ran the ball 184 times to 91 for Holmes.
Trying to make the number even this season seems unlikely headed into the opener.
“I don’t know if we can do that. We try,” Dantonio said. “I think all those guys warrant being named the guy that can carry the load. We’ll see who does it. We’ll see who gets the most touches.”
Based on last season, it would appear Scott and Holmes are the two that will see the most work. Holmes is the veteran who is the more dependable blocker and receiver out of the backfield. Scott, however, has the tools to be an All-Big Ten performer.
What Warner doesn’t want is the competition forcing each of the three to try to do too much and hurting the offense in the process.
“I think they know that we’re always gonna go with the hot hand,” Warner said. “There’s only so many footballs to go around. What I don’t want them doing is pressing and trying to create things and make big plays all the time. I think they have to stay within themselves. If they don’t break out a run in their first series, they just need to play their game and their time will come again. It’s not like they have to make a big play every time they touch the football. Bottom line is we’re gonna play guys that are producing.”
For all three, that means being ready to produce on matter how many carries they’ve had. It’s something Dantonio has pushed, dismissing talk about needing a certain amount of carries to get into a rhythm.
“You’ve got your opportunities, you better make the best of them,” Dantonio said. “I don’t care if you get three or 12. You better have a good three and better get in rhythm quick, because I’m not waiting around.
“They’re all starters, like I told them today, ‘You’ve got a yard to go, I don’t care if you have any blocking, you better get that yard, that’s your job.’”
It’s an attitude all have embraced, Scott said.
“I always tell the guys and they always tell me, ‘Take advantage of very opportunity because you just never know how many of those you will get,’” Scott said. “Obviously from experience the last two years the hot guy will be getting the reps.”
What is clear is the fact the Spartans will lean heavily on their backs, whoever carries the load.
“I don’t think there’s any question that position needs to get touches,” Dantonio said. “That position needs to get touches, because that is a position of strength for us. So, we’ve got to find ways to get the ball to their tailbacks.”
Here’s a look at the breakdown in carries and production from Michigan State’s running backs the last two seasons:
(Year; Games; Total carries; Yards; Avg.; TDs)
2015: 14 games, 146 carries, 699 yards, 4.8 average, 11 TD
2016: 12 games, 184 carries, 994 yards, 5.4 average, 6 TD
2015: 13 games, 110 carries, 540 yards, 4.9 average, 8 TD
2016: 12 games, 91 carries, 431 yards, 4.7 average, 5 TD
2015: 11 games, 119 carries, 500 yards, 4.2 average, 3 TD
2016: 10 games, 28 carries, 120 yards, 4.3 average, 2 TD