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Michigan State 2020 Positional Breakdown: Running Backs

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The Spartans bring back a young and talented backfield headed into the 2020 season

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There is a lot of uncertainty heading into the 2020 season for Michigan State offensively, but one of the positions that the Spartans do have a decent amount of production returning is at the running back spot. While there isn’t a ton of experience throughout the depth chart, there is some talent there waiting to be unleashed.

Returning Starter

Elijah Collins

Collins was the team’s leading rusher last year, rushing for just shy of 1,000 yards (988 to be exact) with twice as many carries as the team’s second leading rusher (Brian Lewerke).

Collins averaged a solid 4.45 yards per carry, and went over the 100 yard rushing mark three times. He also ran for a team-high five touchdowns.

The redshirt freshman also caught 15 passes for another 99 yards out of the backfield.

Collins showed some explosiveness from the running back position, while also proving himself capable of being a workhorse. He had nine games last year with at least 15 carries, so the staff should feel confident handing the ball off to him regularly.

While Collins will likely get the bulk of the carries again this season, we are likely to see a committee style used once again, with different backs getting different series to show what they can do.

Without knowing exactly what the new MSU offense is going to look like, it is hard to know for sure how each of the backs will be used. But Collins proved himself a versatile runner last year, and I expect him to see a big role in the new look Spartan offense this year.

Guess Who’s Back

Connor Heyward

After leaving the team mid-season last year to enter the transfer portal, 2018 leading rusher Connor Heyward has returned to the Spartan program. Heyward appeared in four games last year, running for 79 yards on 24 carries, and also caught seven passes for 52 yards and a touchdown.

In 2018, Heyward led MSU in rushing yards, carries, and touchdowns, while also ranking fifth on the team in receptions and receiving yards.

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

Heyward is an all-purpose back who can do a lot of different things for you, but doesn’t really excel in any one area.

It is hard to say what role Heyward will have this year, although the plan at least for now is to have him play running back. His experience and ability to help in protection are likely to earn him playing time, as is his versatility.

New MSU Offensive Coordinator Jay Johnson has often described his scheme as being “multiple.” Well there isn’t a running back on the roster that fits that description more than Heyward.

Other Returning Contributors

Anthony Williams Jr.

Williams saw action in 12 games last year as a true freshman. The Bolingbrook, Illinois product finished third on the team in yards and carries, running for 118 yards on 38 attempts. He also hauled in six passes for 77 yards, and averaged 18.6 yards on five kickoff returns.

Williams was a highly-rated recruit coming in last season, rated the 49th running back in the country by ESPN. So while he doesn’t have a ton of experience, he seems like the guy most likely to break out if given the chance.

He showed some flashes of his skillset last year, and has the ability to be explosive in space, as evidenced by those receiving numbers.

What will be interesting is to see how the new staff utilizes him. He certainly has the ability to be an every down back based on what we have seen, the question is how much work he will get behind Collins and Heyward. Regardless, having to find ways to use a player like Williams is a good problem to have.

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

Brandon Wright

Wright is similar to Williams in many regards. Both saw limited action as a true freshman, and came in as high level recruits. Wright was the top running back in Ohio according to Rivals, and carried 18 times for 48 yards last year for MSU.

Wright is a little bit bigger than Collins and Williams, checking in at 6-2 and 223 pounds. That extra size and strength could potentially earn him a role in more short yardage situations, an area where the Spartan offense has really struggled the last few years.

Again, the new coaching staff will have to figure out the best way to get Wright touches, and it is hard to say how many of those there are going to be.

Upperclassmen

Alante Thomas

Thomas is the elder statesman of the running backs. The redshirt senior transfer from Saginaw Valley State has seen limited action over the last few years and provides some extra depth to the running back group.

Andre Welch

Welch, a redshirt junior, has appeared in 10 career games as both a running back and a wide receiver. At 5-9 and 175 pounds, Welch doesn’t really have the ideal size for either position, but can fill in at either in a pinch.

He is another versatile player, with the chance to add value and depth to an already deep position.

Incoming freshmen: Jordon Simmons (Powder Springs, Georgia) and Donovan Eaglin (Manvel, Texas).

Outlook

While the last two seasons have provided some uncertainty in the running back position, the Spartans appear to be in pretty good shape coming in to the 2020 season.

Again, without knowing exactly how the new offense is going to look, it is hard to say how the group will be utilized. But, if they do value versatility the way they have indicated, this is a group they should definitely enjoy using.

I don’t think MSU is going to come out and dominate teams on the ground like they did during the height of the Mark Dantonio era, this is a group that should be able to be very productive for Jay Johnson, Mel Tucker and company.