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Next Big Thing: Running Back

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This running back has already been the “Next Big Thing” but his best days are in front of him

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Notre Dame
L.J. Scott is poised for a huge season
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

While most entries in this series have focused on trying to find an under-the-radar player, or someone that will be stepping into a new role with increased playing time, this one is going to take a bit of a different meaning to the phrase “next big thing.”

For this one we are looking at running back, which is one of the few position groups that will have very little, if any, new faces in 2017. This is a deep group with three players we are all very familiar with after the last two seasons. So it seems unlikely that we are going to see anyone new getting carries this year or contributing in a meaningful way. What we could see however, is one of those three upperclassmen step forward and have a monster season. And for that reason, we are going to be talking about L.J. Scott.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Scott would have been the obvious name in a similar article two years ago, when Jeremy Langford’s departure left a hole in the Spartan backfield. He was a big time recruit when he came to East Lansing, and he showed why as a freshman. Now with two years under his belt, he is poised to have the kind of big season that many of his predecessors have had.

Obviously Scott has gotten his fair share of touches at MSU. He has 330 carries already and 13 receptions. He’s racked up 1,693 yards on the ground, another 162 in receiving yards, and found the endzone 18 times already. He sits just on the outside of the top-20 in MSU all-time for rushing yards and touchdowns and is 19th in yards per carry (5.13) and 14th in yards per game (65.1).

Last year Scott averaged 5.4 yards per carry and racked up nearly 1,000 yards on 184 attempts. All those numbers led the team, and by a good amount. However, the number of carries is about 100 less than the number Langford averaged over his junior and senior year and about 200 behind the monster final years for Le’Veon Bell and Javon Ringer.

It is with Bell that I think we can draw some interesting parallels. As a freshman Bell got 107 carries, with sophomore Edwin Baker leading the team with 207 rushes. Then, as a sophomore, Bell ran the ball 182 times, with Baker getting 170 touches. Then came the huge junior season where Bell carried the MSU offense with 382 rushes, with senior Larry Caper and sophomore Nick Hill combining for 40 carries.

Very similar path for Scott, who had 146 carries as a freshman, with London (119) and Holmes (110) close behind, but then distancing himself last year with about twice as many carries as Holmes and London getting just 28 rushes all season. This is why it could set up for Scott to be the bell cow back for the 2017 season, especially with a young quarterback, not unlike Le’Veon in 2012.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Michigan State
L.J. Scott could be on a similar path as former Spartan Le’Veon Bell.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Scott really came to life in the second half of last season. In the final six games of the season he ran for 658 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per attempt. He also had 142 yards on seven catches, better than 20 yards per reception. All of this came after he inexplicably found his way out of favor with the coaching staff and got just eight total touches in the BYU and Northwestern games.

It became apparent as the season went on that L.J. Scott was the best back on the team, and there is no reason to believe that has changed as we head into this season. With the uncertainty at quarterback and receiver, the Spartans are going to have to run the ball effectively. And L.J. Scott is their best option. Not only that, he has a chance to have a couple of really special years in his final two years on campus. I’m not saying he’s going to be Le’Veon Bell or Javon Ringer this year, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he was. And I certainly won’t be surprised if he ends up finishing his career with his name appearing in the top-five of most of the Michigan State career rushing marks.

This offense is going to be a work in progress, but while they are getting it right, it is going to be L.J. Scott carrying the rock a lot. If last year proved anything, it is that even when the Spartans didn’t have a good aerial attack, Scott could still get things done with the ground game. The only question that remains is if he can handle the workload of being the main focus of the offense. The good news is that you’ve got two solid, experienced backs to give him a breather once in a while. It is all set up for Scott to take that next step this year, and the Spartans will really need him to do so if they want to be successful.