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Michigan State Football: Running back competition is steep in 2021

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NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State Spartans have retooled the roster heading into the 2021 campaign, as head coach Mel Tucker builds the program in his vision. Michigan State has seen 16 players enter the transfer portal with the intention to leave the program, with many already finding new schools, while also adding six new players (plus a walk-on) of its own from the portal. There are also quite a few seniors returning for an extra year of eligibility and a few players who declared for the NFL Draft.

With all of the changes to the roster, perhaps outside of quarterback, one of the most intriguing positions to watch for the Spartans is at running back. With spring ball on the horizon, and the summer workouts and fall camp still months away, Tucker and running backs coach William Peagler have a lot of time to sort out the rotation. But with several running backs with playing experience on the roster, including now a couple of transfers who will compete this fall, it will be interesting to see how the Spartans handle the running backs room.

So far at running back, Michigan State has lost Anthony Williams Jr. to the transfer portal, who will play for the Akron Zips this coming season. Andre Welch, a former wide receiver turned running back, has also entered his name in the transfer portal. Fullback/tight end Max Rosenthal also transferred to Illinois.

However, the Spartans still return a lot of production with Connor Heyward, Jordon Simmons and Elijah Collins — the three leading returning rushers for MSU last season — as well as Brandon Wright and Donovan Eaglin. Michigan State also signed three-star running back Davion Primm in its 2021 recruiting class.

Even with all of that returning “production,” The Spartans really struggled to run the football in 2020. Simmons lead the team in rushing with just 219 yards on the season, and no running back scored a touchdown. MSU averaged a meager 91.7 rushing yards per game, and just 2.7 yards per attempt. Both metrics ranked toward the bottom of the country.

Because of those struggles in the ground game, Tucker and his staff hit the transfer portal hard for running backs and ending up appearing to get two pretty good ones in Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III and Auburn transfer Harold Joiner.

With the transfers and returning backs on the roster for 2021, there seems to be a logjam at the position, but Tucker and his staff see the competition there as a good problem to have.

“Well, we want to be able to run the football, and we gotta have backs,” Tucker said of the running back position at a recent press conference. “We need to have competition at positions, and that’s what we’re gonna have at the running back spot. Again, we don’t have a sense of entitlement. It’s compete to play, compete in the weight room, compete in the drills. Everything is a competition and we’re gonna play the best players. We need to be able to run the football. We need to be able to get tough yards. We need to be able to be physical. We need be able to pick up the blitz. We need backs, we need a stable of backs.”

Walker joined MSU this winter as a mid-year addition. He has three years of eligibility remaining, according to Tucker. He had 217 carries for 1,158 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and 17 touchdowns in 20 games during his two seasons with the Demon Deacons. Meanwhile Joiner, who was used sparsely at Auburn, did not join the team in January, and looks to head to East Lansing in the summer.

Tucker is already impressed with what he sees out of Walker. It won’t be surprising to see him earn immediate playing time.

“Good sized running back, has a very good build,” Tucker said about Walker. “He’s already been very impressive in the weight room and is on his way to set some records there walking in the door. Good bulk, he has good contact strength, he plays with a low center of gravity, he doesn’t go down on first contact. An extremely patient runner that has good vision and instincts. He attacks this line of scrimmage, shows burst through the hole. He shows acceleration when he gets to the second level and he really fights for extra yards to finish runs. He also has value in the pass game and is a reliable receiving threat.”

Michigan State used a rotation of running backs during the 2020 season. Three players — Heyward (65), Simmons (56) and Collins (41) — carried the ball more than 40 times this past year, which included just seven games for the Spartans. Wright (six) and Williams (four) also received a small amount of carries. Non-running backs, such as quarterbacks Rocky Lombardi (32) and Payton Thorne (25) also had a fair amount of rushing attempts. Additionally, wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, as well as tight end Tyler Hunt, all had at least one rushing attempt.

While there is a lot to sort out in the running backs room, and a lot of time to do it, Tucker knows the competition is going to bring out the best in his players. The best players will eventually stand out.

“The goal is your practices are harder than your games,” Tucker said. “So, the more guys that we can get in here that can compete at a high level, the more competitive our practices are gonna be, and we practice a lot more than we play and that’s how you get good. That’s how you develop your team, is through competitive practices. That running back room, obviously, it’s gonna be crowded, but pretty much every position that we have, every room, is gonna be crowded. It’s gonna be competitive and that’s the way we need to have it.”