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Michigan State Spartans Football 2015 Position Previews: Running Backs

Joe previews the biggest question mark on offense

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Key Losses

Jeremy Langford's 2014 campaign landed him fifth in rushing yards, seventh in carries, and tied for first in rushing touchdowns in MSU's single-season record book. After being drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fourth round, Langford creates a #DANGford -sized hole at running back.

Nick Hill is an underrated loss after picking up 622 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014. Most of that production came against lower-level competition, but he brought some versatility and experience to the position.

Top Returnees

Junior Delton Williams will apparently be back, though perhaps after a suspension and maybe without a scholarship. Regardless of how you might feel about his reinstatement, his return is an immediate boost as he is the only running back on the team with at least 50 carries to his name. Delton picked up five rushing touchdowns of his own on 5.9 yards per carry in 2014. Even more impressive, Delton averaged 8.3 highlight yards per opportunity (a measure designed to account for yards gained once the offensive line has done its job), far outpacing the 5.4 and 5.5 Langford and Hill put up, respectively. If he's back, he's almost certainly in the running back rotation.

Sophomore Gerald Holmes got very little work last year with just 15 carries for 44 yards. Despite that, Holmes was at the top of the Spring depth chart and was better than Madre London at pass protection during Spring practices. Everything is innuendo at this point, but Holmes continues to be a solid pass protector, he'll be on the field.

New Faces

Redshirt Freshman Madre London is supposed to be a shiftier back than Holmes, but to my surprise is actually the larger player; Holmes is 6-foot, 218 pounds while London is 6-foot-1, 220 pounds. Those are both large running backs, though the difference between them could be small. The battle between the two of them to establish themselves early in the season before the full return of Delton and/or the emergence of L.J. Scott will be interesting to watch and could have some major effects during the Oregon game.

True Freshman L.J. Scott is one of the most highly-rated prospects ever brought in by Mark Dantonio, and will have an immediate shot to play. He's right in there with Holmes and London in terms of size (6'2, 228 per 24/7). I don't know what else to say about him, so here's his Senior year tape:

Redshirt Freshmen T.J Harrell and Gerald Owens didn't get a lot of time at running back in the Spring Game, and that makes sense to me in the case of Harrell (more likely a STAR LB) but not Owens. Owens came to MSU to play running back, though his weight suggests he'll end up elsewhere. I'd be concerned about a transfer in Owens' situation.

The Upshot

This year reminds me a little bit of 2009, when A.J. Jimmerson, Caulton Ray, Glenn Winston, Ashton Leggett, Edwin Baker, Larry Caper, and Andre Anderson were all competing for time following the departure of Javon Ringer. That was a strange group, and so is the one competing for time now. There's the talented freshman (Scott), the talented guy with legal trouble (Williams) and then a mixture of somewhat similar guys who haven't distinguished themselves yet (Holmes, London, Harrell, Owens).

What happened in 2009 is that nearly everyone got a shot to start or shine in some way; Ray, Winston, Leggett, Baker, and Caper all started at some point or had a big day (like Leggett's 4 touchdowns vs. WMU). That could happen in 2015, depending on the suspension of Delton Williams and the progression of L.J. Scott.

The other odd thing about 2009 was that the rushing game was actually better in terms of both total yardage output (1779 in 2009 compared to 1692 in 2008) and yards per carry (2008: 3.3, 2009: 4.2) than it had been in 2008 with Javon Ringer.

It's unlikely that the ground game could improve much from 2014, where MSU gained more than 3000 yards on 5.1 yards per carry, but replacing a star running back isn't quite as difficult as replacing players at other spots. For that reason, (and sheer mathematical probability) I bet one or two guys emerge early in the season.