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Position Preview: Running Backs

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LJ Scott’s return makes life much easier for the MSU offense

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Washington State vs Michigan State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Running back is the next position on the docket in our pre-season position breakdowns. This is one that could have been a huge question mark for the Spartans had L.J. Scott gone to the NFL. His return makes things much simpler for MSU, and could lead to a big senior season for Scott.

Key Losses: Gerald Holmes and Madre London

Holmes graduated after last season, and London transferred to Tennessee as a graduate transfer for his final season. Both of them had up and down careers at MSU, with varying levels of success. Both had individual big games, but had mostly played second and third fiddle to Scott the last three seasons.

Their loss is felt from a depth perspective. When they were around the coaches knew they could hand either of them the ball in the case of an injury or when Scott got a case of the dropsies, and the performance would not drop off much at all. Holmes was also a very good pass blocker, and London was a solid receiver out of the backfield.

On the flip side, sometimes there would be complaints that when you tried to get everyone involved, it was tough for any one player to get into a rhythm. That will not likely be the case this year.

Returning Starters: L.J. Scott

A somewhat surprising decision has Scott back for his senior year. He announced his return immediately after the Spartans win in the Holiday Bowl, where Scott rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns while adding two catches for 26 yards.

Scott enters the season knocking on the door of the top ten all-time at MSU in rushes (11th), rushing yards (12th) and rushing touchdowns (12th). He would need at least 224 attempts, 913 yards, and nine touchdowns to finish in the top five in school history in all three categories. Those numbers are well within reason considering Scott is going to be the guy this year and likely won’t be sharing carries the way he has the last few years.

Scott, when he is on his game, is one of the best backs in the Big Ten. He is explosive, tough to bring down, and can make guys miss. He has the chance to have a dominant senior year and make an all-conference team.

The issue for Scott last year was the fumbles. He coughed the ball up a lot last year, often at very costly times. That is the kind of thing that gets you a seat on the bench rather than a 20+ carry game. Scott must find a way to hang onto the ball. If he does, he will see plenty of action. If he doesn’t then it could be a big problem for Michigan State all the way around.

Other Returning Players: Connor Heyward

Heyward saw plenty of action as a freshman, but most of it was in the kick return game. He led the team with 20 kick-off returns for 436 yards and averaged 21.8 yards per return. Heyward saw only three carries out of the backfield for 10 yards last year.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The son of former NFL running back Craig “Iron Head” Heyward, Connor has a pretty big build at 6ft, 228 pounds. While he probably isn’t the fastest, or the most elusive runner, he showed an ability to get upfield quickly and hit the hole as a returner. Heyward will probably not see a ton of action out of the backfield, but the coaches like to keep guys fresh, and Heyward should get a chance to show what he can do at various points throughout the year.

Possible Impact Freshman: La’Darius Jefferson and Elijah Collins

Both Jefferson and Collins were three star recruits coming into college this year. Jefferson was Mr. Michigan Football at Muskegon as a dual threat quarterback. He ran for over 2000 yards and 33 TD’s on 225 carries his senior year, including 245 yards and four scores in the state title game. Collins is a shifty back, with good speed and patient vision.

One of those two will likely become the third option at running back this year, while the other will be the recipient of a red shirt at some point.

Positives

The return of L.J. Scott means the Spartans have themselves a legitimate workhorse type back, one who they know has the ability to be a difference maker in any game that he plays in. Scott can take over a game, or help grind out a win in the fourth quarter. He can be effective as a pass catcher out of the backfield as well as run out of any formation. He is experienced and has played with his offensive teammates for multiple years, and should be more than comfortable with all of them. Scott’s return moved running back from a position in question to a strength all by itself.

Negatives

Depth is obviously a concern here. If Scott goes down MSU has all of three career carries on the bench behind him. Now developing running backs has never been a problem in East Lansing under Mark Dantonio, and I expect those players behind Scott on the depth chart to be good players, but they aren’t at Scott’s level right now. For a team with conference title and possible CFB Playoff aspirations, you want to have your top guy in the backfield.

This ties into the other issue mentioned above, Scott’s fumble issues. If he cannot hang onto the ball, he is not going to stay on the field, at least not as much as they probably need him to. And if that happens, you are going to need the less experienced guys to pick it up and perform at a high level.