Let’s be honest, the running game for the Michigan State Spartans was absolutely abysmal in 2018. The team averaged just 124.8 rushing yards per game, which ranked 114th in the NCAA, and a mere 3.49 yards per attempt.
There are many reasons this happened: poor offensive line play, injuries, play-calling and a mostly inexperienced backfield getting the touches with LJ Scott missing the majority of the season.
Flash forward to 2019, and Scott has moved on, but MSU returns many of its running back from the previous year. The team also added a couple of freshmen tailbacks.
Let’s break down the Michigan State roster at the running back position for the 2019 season:
Connor Heyward, junior
Heyward is the most experienced running back returning to East Lansing. He is expected to lead the backfield in touches this season, but will yield some time to some of the underclassmen halfbacks. In 2018, Heyward was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award. He led the Spartans in pretty much all major rushing statistics last season with 118 carries, 529 yards and five rushing touchdowns. He averaged a respectable 4.5 yards per carry, and also had 32 receptions in the passing game. Heyward also handled kick return duties and had a team-leading 1,065 all-purpose yards.
2019 outlook: Questions about whether or not Heyward can be a true No. 1 back or not have arisen throughout the offseason, but the fact is that Heyward did a fine job behind a injured/inexperienced offensive line and volatile quarterback situation last season. I expect him to exceed expectations this season, but he has work to do to get there.
La’Darius Jefferson, sophomore
A high school quarterback, Jefferson had to put on weight and learn a new position once he arrived in college. He was thrust into action early on following Scott’s injury, assuming No. 2 running back duties for the majority of the season. Jefferson ranked third on the team with 255 yards on 78 carries. His 3.3 yards per carry leave a lot to be desired, but again, there were many things working against the running game. He scored two touchdowns on the ground, but wasn’t much of a threat through the air, catching just seven passes for 29 yards.
2019: Jefferson struggled a bit as a freshman, but so did the entire offense. With a whole offseason to train and get more comfortable at the position, the Muskegon product should assume No. 2 or No. 3 running back duties once again. It will be interesting to see how new offensive coordinator Brad Salem chooses to use Jefferson, but I would expect him to see the field plenty. I also expect Jefferson’s numbers to improve across the board this season.
Elijah Collins, redshirt freshman
Collins played in just three games as a true freshman in 2018, which allowed him to get an extra year of eligibility moving forward. He officially recorded eight yards on just two carries, playing a mere six snaps on offense. Collins also got a little bit of run on special teams. He will battle with Jefferson and true freshman Anthony Williams, Jr. for a spot in the regular rotation. Fun fact: Collins played high school basketball with Cassius Winston at University of Detroit Jesuit. The pair led the Cubs to a Class A state championship in 2016. You can learn more about Collins here.
2019 outlook: It’s not certain how big of a role Collins will play, but he should easily eclipse his playing time and production from last year. The backfield is crowded, and a committee approach seems likely, so it’s up to Collins to earn a role. During the spring, Dantontio mentioned that he liked what Collins was doing, but thought he was “a little hesitant” at times. We’ll see if he takes his coach’s advice and becomes more aggressive.
Anthony Williams, Jr., true freshman
Williams was a three-star recruit out of Bolingbrook high school in Chicago, and ranked as the No. 2 running back in the state of Illinois by 247Sports and ESPN.com, as well as the the No. 1 all-purpose back in Illinois by Rivals.com. To learn more about Ant Williams, check out his commitment spotlight story.
Dantonio praised Williams in the spring. Per 247Sports:
“He’s quick. He’s got a good first step and good cutback ability. I think he’s got good vision. He catches the ball well. He’s tough,” Dantonio said. “And he’s just learning the position, so he’s not topped out. He’s had 14 practices, so he’s still learning. But I think, really all spring, he’s shown things in the spring that reminder you of, like I said, Jeremy (Langford) a little bit in terms of just sort of that ability to cut back against the grain.”
2019 outlook: After enrolling early in the spring and showing off what he can do, all signs point to early playing time for Williams, who is more of a quick player who can make you miss in the open field — this is different than the more powerful running styles of Heyward and Jefferson. I would expect to see Williams as a regular contributor in the backfield.
You can check out just some of his high school highlights below:
Other running backs on the roster:
- Brandon Wright, true freshman: Wright, a three-star under-the-radar prospect at the time of his commitment, was considered a top-two running back in the state of Ohio by most of the major recruiting websites. He may struggle to find a role in a crowded Spartans backfield this season, and given the four-game rule, a redshirt season would not be surprising here.
- Noah Sargent, junior: Sargent walked onto the football team in 2017 after transferring from Saginaw Valley State. He has yet to see game action as a Spartan, but did receive Academic All-Big Ten honors in 2018. He isn’t likely to see playing time in 2019, either, but provides depth if his number is called.
- Alante Thomas, junior: Just like Sargent, Thomas walked-on and made the Michigan State football team in 2017, following a transfer from SVSU. He played in two snaps in 2018, including one carry that went for six yards against Northwestern. He is also unlikely to see the field much in 2019, but is another depth player in the backfield.
- Reid Burton, junior: A walk on in 2016, Burton is yet to see any playing time. He is a two-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree.
- Max Rosenthal, sophomore: The expected starting fullback. Rosenthal played in eight games last season, and scored a touchdown against Maryland on a fumble recovery. He will lead block for the tailbacks.
Note: Sophomore Weston Bridges was moved from running back to wide receiver this preseason.
It’s hard to predict exactly how the backfield will shakeout, but the most likely scenario is a committee approach with Connor Heyward leading the charge.
Stay tuned to The Only Colors for more positional breakdowns as the season nears.