Hello, and welcome to part 2 of TOC's position-by-position breakdown of MSU's 2011 football team. Today, as you've surely read above, we're looking at Michigan State's plentiful running backs.
If you missed part 1, it's here:
With no further wait, I present:
The Full House Backfield (22-24-4)
Edwin Baker (5'9, 208 lbs. Jr.)
2010: 207 carries, 1201 yards, 5.8 YPC, 13 TDs, 3 catches, 22 yards, 0 TD
2009: 85 carries, 427 yards, 5.02 YPC, 1 TD, 7 receptions, 43 yards, 0 TD
I'm starting off 2011's preview with a memory from the 2009 football season, when Edwin Baker, for a moment, made everything a little bit better for MSU fans on a cold, depressing, January night. The story up until the bowl game had generally been, 'which program had embarrassed itself more?': the Spartans with the highly publicized Rather Hall incident, or the Red Raiders and their allegedly medically negligent head coach. On the first drive of the game, Kirk Cousins threw an interception. Texas Tech then drove down the field completing 5/5 passes and grinding out 4 yard gains on the ground until they easily scored against a depleted MSU defense. It felt like it was going to be a long night. Each team had a four-and-out, before Cousins connected with Blair White for a long gain down field. I imagine by this point ESPN had just mentioned Rather Hall for the 7th time and cut away to Adam James and his beanie for the 40th time. Then Edwin Baker suddenly ripped off a great 46 yard touchdown run, showing speed I'd heard about but not really seen. It was 7-7, game on, and suddenly the actions of Glenn Winston and company didn't seem quite so pervasive.
Baker finished that game with 97 yards on 12 carries, his first career touchdown, and (other than WMU which doesn't count, because, you know, 'Ashton Leggett for Heisman' and all that) his first really impressive game since [2009 Iowa Memory Deleted].
It was a harbinger of wonderful things to come.
In 2010, through a combination of speed and power, Baker ripped off impressive run after impressive run, stepping confidently into the Javon Ringer role many had envisioned him in when he committed to the program. He's strong enough to brush off linebackers and quick enough to accelerate away from secondaries. And his cuts are absolutely sublime:
He is short at 5'9, but if anything it's an advantage (as if his genes decided they didn't want to spread his bundles of muscle any further than they had to). And make no mistake, Baker is stout. They don't call him 'Rock' for nothing. In addition he's a little used, but not invisible, threat receiving out of the back field. In 2010, he simply found most of his catch opportunities going to Caper and Baker, superior options at the time.
Think he wasn't vital to the success of the team? Look at these splits:
in Wins: 186 carries, 1166 yards, 6.27 YPC, 13 TDs
in Losses: 21 carries, 35 yards, 1.67 YPC, 0 TD
Yes, running games get de-emphasized when teams fall behind, yes, almost everyone's statistics are obviously worse in losses (particularly when you catch beat downs like the 2010 Spartans did), and yes, Iowa and Alabama were the two strongest defenses on the schedule, but still, just look at that drop off. In wins, he was good for 100+ yards and a TD. In losses, no TDs and only about a first down and a half worth of yardage. Ouch. The lows need to be less low, if this team wants to pull out those tough road games in the future.
But when you criticize the kid even a little, you remember he's just a true junior this year, entering his second year as a starter. If he's not the best back in the Big Ten, he's no lower than 3rd. MSU is probably going to divide carries between the Full House too much for him to put up true Heisman numbers, but he is, without question, one of the top returning running backs in the country.
Le'Veon Bell (6'2, 237 lbs. Soph.)
2010: 107 carries, 605 yards, 5.65 YPC, 8 TDs, 11 Catches, 97 yards, 0 TD
Le'Veon Bell is a case for listening to the off-season hype. All throughout the Spring, Summer, and Fall, person after person, in and around the program, was saying, "Wow! That Le'Veon Bell, he's gonna get carries". And I was like, "Yeah, yeah, he's a true freshman, he's not really gonna beat out Larry Caper." Then Caper had an early hand injury, and Bell went for 141 yards and 2 touchdowns on 10 carries against WMU and I (and everyone else) took notice.
Ultimately though, Le'Veon Bell was the definition of the Freshman Wall (with all the good and bad that entails). Look at these (well promulgated) numbers:
First six games: 71 carries, 549 yards, 7.73 YPC, 8 TDs
Last seven games: 36 carries, 56 yards, 1.55 YPC, 0 Tds
Now I'm NOT saying former Michigan defensive coordinator GERG Robinson stabbed Le'Veon Bell with a syringe of horse tranquilizer following his 41 yard touchdown romp in Ann Arbor. And, just for the record, I am NOT saying that Michigan Safety Cam Gordon spent his 2010 summer researching ancient Egyptian curses instead of learning how to properly take an angle to and wrap up a running back. I'm not saying those things, I'm just saying something happened after or during the Michigan game that got him off track.
The Freshman wall: So, so, good, then suddenly, so, so, bad. Luckily, it usually has a built in expiration date. Le'Veon Bell isn't a freshman anymore. With another year of coaching and, more importantly, conditioning under his belt, I expect we see much more consistent numbers from Bell this go around. And that should scare the pants off of opposing defensive coordinators.
And that's nice, because 6'2, 237, isn't quite John Clay big, or T.J. Duckett big, but it's real, real close. There are almost certainly going to be occasions next year where he catches a counter toss and breaks past the first level of the defense, only for the poor outside linebacker (or god forbid, safety) to realize they have to tackle a man who, not only has a full head of steam, but is, indeed, larger than they are. Rudimentary laws of motion tell me this is something to be excited about.
Bell is blessed with outstanding vision, balance, and power. Both were on display against Notre Dame, when he made linebacker Manti Te'o look silly on a crucial third-and-long screen pass, and then on the very next play, took the ball, almost untouched, up the gut for a 16 yard touchdown.
Beautiful. If we can get that Le'veon Bell for 13 games, our offense is gonna be shenanigans.
Larry Caper (5'11, 215 lbs. Jr.)
2010: 38 carries for 144 yards, 3.79 YPC, 2 TDs, 12 catches, 133 yards, 1 TD
2009: 120 carries for 468 yards, 3.9 YPC, 6 TDs, 3 catches, 47 yards
Larry 'Don't Call Me Capers' Caper is a curious case. If, in November of 2009, you'd asked a Spartan fan who was going to be the next big MSU running back, the answer you'd have been likely to get was "Larry Caper."
And why not? After all, this (Caper starts at 0:55 but frankly the entire thing is fun for the whole family):
does good things for one's reputation at MSU.
But then he had a rash of injury issues, leaving the door open for someone to step in and take his carries, which Baker and Bell happily did. By the time he returned, he was mostly left to take his shot for rushing yards against the likes of Illinois or Iowa, no easy ask. His YPC average and relative lack of carries attest to that. But Caper reinvented himself and wowed fans with a new persona: he, sort of out of nowhere, became a great third down back.
Now, Caper's receiving statistics are good, but just as important as his potential to be a threat out of the backfield was his blocking and pass protection. MSU got by with an only average offensive line last year, in part, due to the help Caper (and Bell) could offer on obvious passing downs taking care of blitzers or lineman who slipped past the front five. I remember in particular, him coming from off the screen to obliterate some sorry Michigan player on a long weaving run by Keshawn for a big first down in that game.
As much as I like Bell, I have to imagine Caper is going to push him very hard for the #2 spot behind Baker. And I wouldn't be surprised one bit if Larry won that spot (That will be one to watch in fall camp). It's extraordinarily reassuring to know that, in the case of an injury, or a transfer, or a defection to the Draft, our #2 and #3 guys at RB are probably really good too.
The New Guys
Nick Hill (5'6, 182 lbs RS Fr.)
2010: 1 carry, 2 yards
Remember when Coach D gave then redshirted freshman Nick Hill a single carry for two yards in our first game of the year, late in the WMU blowout? And then everyone who pays too much attention to football, myself included, went "What in the burned redshirt? I don't even-". Well, thanks to the magical wonders of the mysterious medical redshirt, Nick Hill is back, and with four years of eligibility too.
The inevitable first reaction is, 'wow, that's a short guy.' And yes, he is the type of height deficient player we're not super used to under Dantonio. But he's no pushover, 180+ pounds on a 5'6 frame is pretty stout.
He got an astounding 3 more carries in the spring game for 3 total yards. So entering his sophomore year, our sample size is, 4 carries (1 competitive), 5 yards (2 competitive). Yeah, I'm uh, not gonna try to get anything out of that.
Some larger sample sizes can be found on the practice field and in his high school days. In two spring scrimmages covered by TOC, he put up 115 yards on 25 carries. That's (for what it's worth) pretty good. Out of high school his was a consensus high three star according to recruiting services. He put up very good rushing numbers for Chelsea high school (2000+ yards, 20+ TDs).
He's fast, but also a much more powerful runner than you'd think at his size. A recruiting analyst gave him a Mike Hart comp on his running style, and Coach D comp'ed him with Edwin Baker, so, you know, 'yes, please' and all that.
I can't believe right now that he'll be able to crack the carries rotation significantly this year. However, I would be not at all surprised to see him returning kick-offs instead of Keshawn Martin this year. I think in two years time he'll get his chance to compete with Bell, Langford, and future recruits for primary carries.
And speaking of Langford,
Jeremy Langford (6'0, 185 lbs. RS Fr.)
Jeremy Langford is a 'running back/wide receiver/defense backfield maybe?' athlete recruited out of Keshawn Martin's former high school. On signing day, Coach D said lots of flattering things about his athleticism and versatility:
"Jeremy Langford is a very explosive player who ran the wildcat offense to near perfection in high school. He has great vision, cutting ability and ball skills. As a defensive player, Jeremy has displayed aggressiveness and toughness. He has great speed and can play a variety of positions, so there's no question that he'll be an excellent player for us. Jeremy will start out as a running back and wide receiver."
His 2011 spring game performance was underwhelming (- 3 yards), but a. he's a freshman, b. it was the spring game c. he only got six carries d. it was the spring game e. it was the spring game.
In high school, he also had a 2000+ yard 20+ touchdown senior season, and, is apparently studying at MSU to be the world's most physically fit accountant of all time.
So I'm going to withhold judgment on Mr. Langford until he gets game time action, which, at running back and at his current position on the depth chart might be a while away. Given comments about his speed, size, and positional flexibility, I wouldn't be surprised to see him flip to a different position in the next year or two a la Mitchell White or Micajah Reynolds. Needless to say, Jeremy is part of the recent upgrade in team speed and explosiveness and should find a spot somewhere on this team where he can help out before he graduates.
Andre Buford (5'8, 184 lbs. Jr.)
2010: 2 carries for 5 yards, 0 TD, 1 catch, 4 yards, 0 TD
2009: 1 carry, 3 yards
I'm going to be honest, I didn't know who Andre Buford was before I looked him up. The single carry he got in 2009 was during the WMU game which I neither saw nor attended. The 2 carries he got against Northern Colorado I did see, or at least, I was in the stands at the time. But, for some reason, 2 carries for 5 yards in a game which we won by 35 points didn't capture my attention. My apologies to Mr. Buford, but I'm guessing he'd understand. I have to imagine that as a true junior, behind two freshman and three other players on the depth chart, Andre isn't going to get crunch time carries barring disastrous injuries.
But Andre Buford seems to be a great example of what a walk-on can bring to a program. Unlike some football players, he seems to have stayed out of trouble, not caused drama, and worked hard, even winning a scout team player of the week award in 2008. Football teams always have places for hard working guys like Andre Buford who love football, and I have a lot of respect for him and those like him. I hope he is using his time with MSU football to build relationships, get a good degree, and have fun. Hopefully Coach can hook this kid up with a year of a freed up scholarship in the future.
For the second time in a row, what more do I really need to say? Baker is a legit preseason Heisman contender, and Bell OR Caper could probably start for about half the Big Ten. This is now, and looks to be for at least the next few years, a big position of strength for this football team. I for one, am going to enjoy every carry.
The bruising, but under appreciated, fullbacks are going to get their own due. That one might be a little bit tougher to write than these last two were... And to whoever commented that they were looking forward to the overviews on the tackles, centers, or linebackers, that's funny because I'm thinking those are easily going to be the toughest to write, and thus, am kinda dreading them. Oh well, onwards we go! Thanks for reading.