LJ Scott ready to help Michigan State chase Big Ten title

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

LJ Scott surprised some last December when he said he’d return to Michigan State for his senior season, deciding the NFL could wait for another year.

By then, those closest to him — family, teammates, coaches — already knew what he was planning to do, but fans were still wondering as the running back was rambling for 110 yards and two touchdowns during a Holiday Bowl victory over Washington State.

Running back LJ Scott has led Michigan State in rushing in each of his first three seasons in East Lansing.

But it had been clear for quite a while for Scott. He knew, well before the final game of the 2017 season, that he would play for the Spartans in 2018. There was too much left to do — for him and for the team.

“Individually, it was basically my performance,” Scott said this week at Big Ten media days, explaining what he described as a simple choice. “I felt like I didn’t perform to my best ability … the way I wanted to. It was definitely a team thing as well. We’ve got a chance to do some great things this year and I think we’ll reach that accomplishment which is a Big Ten championship.

The critics would probably say Scott should have gone. A running back, after all, only has so many carries in his career. That’s the common belief, at least, and another year as the primary back in Michigan State’s offense would only chip away at those carries.

However, Scott insists that was never a factor.

“I was never close (to leaving),” he said. “To be honest, going into my junior year obviously I thought about it, but It wasn’t hanging up on my head or anything like that. By the time it was halfway through the season I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll be back here another year.’”

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There’s no doubt Scott’s return helps Michigan State in its quest to win the Big Ten East and get back to the conference championship game. He is the only back returning with significant experience, and has led the Spartans in rushing each of his first three seasons while scoring 25 rushing touchdowns.

Coach Mark Dantonio compared Scott’s return to 2015 when quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun came back for their senior seasons.

“He’s like a great recruit,” Dantonio said. “To have a guy back that has that kind of performance and ability, it’s like when Connor Cook and Shilique came back. We won a championship that year, so that a big item on the checklist.”

Championships were checked off fairly quickly for Scott when he arrived on campus. A top-level recruit from Ohio State’s backyard turned down the Buckeyes to become a Spartan, and in his first season helped bring conference title by leading one of the most iconic drives in program history.

Running back LJ Scott has rushed for 25 touchdowns in his first three seasons at Michigan State.

Against Iowa in the Big Ten title game, the Spartans took 22 plays to score the decisive touchdown, Scott carrying the ball 14 times. His final carry was simply Scott, twisting and plowing through tacklers before reaching the ball with one hand over the goal line with just 27 seconds left on the clock.

It was a huge win, one that hardly foreshadowed the collapse of 2016 or the amazing seven-game rebound the next year.

But Scott was there for all of it, coming six yards short of 1,000 rushing yards as a sophomore while battling fumbles last season — he put the ball in the turf five times and lost four of them.

“High and tight,” Scott said with a smile when asked what he’s focused on this season.

He also wants to be better after contact and get faster. It will all help the Spartans now and Scott in the future, something Dantonio had in mind when he decided to bring the soft-spoken senior to media days.

“He changes our football team, and it’s good for him,” Dantonio said. “It’s an area of growth and that’s what the game of football should be about, as well. You’ve gotta win, I understand that, but it’s also about growing young people and he had an opportunity to come here and talk, and being at this level and scope of media frenzy will only help him at the next level. That’s a positive.”

It’s all in an effort to have Scott ready for when he does make that jump to the NFL.

Getting better on the field and understanding media obligations are just part of it. Scott is getting closer to his degree, too, netting a 3.5 grade-point average his last semester.

As he sat in Chicago this week, a large Big Ten championship ring on his finger, Scott reflected on his journey.

“I’ve matured a lot,” he said. “It’s been a quick, long road and I’m looking for 2018 to be a great year.”

What would be the perfect way for that year to end? Scott’s response might have been the best reflection of that maturity.

“Just giving it their all. Seeing that people are giving it their all, even if we lose a game,” Scott explained. “I know he gave it his all. He’s out there with wounds on him and scars on him, and if it hurts you like it hurts me I know you gave it your all. So just seeing stuff like that makes me happy, knowing I got brothers right there that will fight for me.”

That fight will continue for Scott as a Spartan, something he always seemed sure of.

“It’s been a process,” he said, “but I’m happy to be where I am right now.”