On Tuesday afternoon, members of the media had a chance to talk to Michigan State running backs coach William Peagler via Zoom. In the meeting, Coach Peagler talked a little about each player in the position group, what went wrong last year, and what’s been better this year. There was also a single word that kept coming up over and over again in the 15-minute long call: “competition.”
“Everything is competition in our program”
One thing is certain about the 2021 Michigan State roster: there is no storage of running backs. Redshirt freshman Donovan Eaglin, sophomore Jordon Simmons, redshirt sophomore transfer Kenneth Walker III, redshirt senior Connor Heyward and redshirt junior Elijah Collins are all on the spring roster. This summer, they will be joined by true freshman Davion Primm and redshirt junior and Auburn transfer Harold Joiner III.
Coach Peagler clearly feels that having so many guys in the tailbacks room is only going to make everyone better.
“It is competition,” Peagler said. “But one thing I am very pleased with in our group is that it is competition in a healthy way. We are not necessarily competing against each other, but competing to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.”
Peagler commented that the players are rooting for each other and coaching each other up during practices. How is it possible to keep that large of a group of guys happy? Peagler thinks that is has to do with the nature of the position and how running backs are being utilized both in college and in the NFL. The work is getting spread out over multiple players throughout each game and throughout the season as a whole.
“You don’t usually see one back playing the whole game, like you did years ago,” Peagler said. “There is just not a lot of 30, 35 carries (players). “I think guys understand that. If you look at the NFL, the lifespan for a running back is less in the NFL than any other position. Guys realize that when they get the opportunity to play at the next level they want their bodies taken care of.”
He went on to say, “Guys understand that it is ‘compete to stay and compete to play.’ Everything is competition in our program and they understand that. As long as you are truthful and you tell them exactly what to expect when they get there, they are not disappointed because they know what to expect.”
Coach Pealger also said, “The competition has been awesome. Guys are competing against each other and they are getting better. I have seen a substantial improvement from everyone in our room from last year to this year.”
Improvements Over Last Year
Speaking of last year, it is no secret that the Spartans struggled in the running game. Michigan State managed only 91.4 yard per game last year, and the team was credited with only two rushing touchdowns in seven games. — and neither of those scores were by a running back (one by quarterback Payton Thorne and one by tight end Tyler Hunt).
“There are no excuses,” Peagler said. “Ultimately we are responsible for the product that we put onto the field.” He went on to say, “We didn’t play very well last year. I wasn’t pleased with the way we played. I think our guys have kind of put a chip on their shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go compete our asses off and take this thing to the next level.’”
That said, with the new staff coming to East Lansing just as the pandemic hit, there were challenges in fully installing the new system. Coach Peagler is clearly happy that things are starting to get back to normal.
“It’s just a totally different deal,” Peagler said about having spring practice. “It feels normal again to a certain extent. Last year early in fall camp, we were on two different fields during practice... just being able to make improvements and communicate things, I think that has been the biggest piece: the ability to communicate better and being in the same room with each other.”
Because of this return to some semblance of normalcy, Coach Peagler feels that he has already seen improvement in several areas. He specifically mentioned improvements in pass protection, playing at a low pad level, finishing runs at the goal line, knowledge of the playbook, conditioning, and playing with physicality compared to last year.
Peagler even mentioned that the running backs had ripped off a few long runs in the scrimmages. When he was asked if this success was due to an improvement by the offensive line or the running backs, he gave a fairly detailed answer:
“There has been some cleaner creases this spring than there were last fall,” Peagler said. “One thing that backs don’t do a very good job of when they come from high school to college is they don’t understand pressing to the line of scrimmage.
“You have to press the line of scrimmage and then make your cut. A lot times guys are trying to make cuts four or five yards from the line of scrimmage. You can’t do that. You have to press the line, make one cut and get north/south. That has been one of the biggest areas of improvement.”
Throughout the press conference, Coach Peagler had a lot of positive things to say about each of his five current running backs.
On Donovan Eaglin: “I think he has taken the next step. Last year he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t ready for playing time...This year, he has really taken advantage of the situations that he has got...He has really done a nice job and he has shown us that he has the ability to help move the sticks in short-yardage.”
Coach Peagler also mentioned that Eaglin is one of the most improved backs on the team since last year, along with Elijah Collins.
On Jordon Simmons: “I’ve seen Jordon get better every single day from day one of spring ball until today. He had one of his best runs of the entire spring...He is just continuing to improve.”
On Kenneth Walker III: “The number one thing that Ken has brought to room is competition. He has also brought an element of elevating everyone’s game. Everyone noticed right away that the guy has got a pretty special skillset.”
Regarding Walker, Peagler went on the say, “Anytime you put the ball in his hand, he has a chance to hit a home run, and that’s what we want to do. We want to put the ball in his hands whether that’s handing it to him, throwing it to him, any way we can get it to him because he is a dang good football player.”
On Elijah Collins: “Elijah is a different person this spring. I’ve seen a totally different kid. A different back. A lot of things last season weren’t as easy as they previously had been. He is starting to get back to that.”
Later in the afternoon, Collins was able to speak to the media directly and he went into more detail about the challenges that he faced personally in 2020. He revealed that he had contracted COVID-19 over the summer, had spent two weeks in quarantine, and lost about a month of development and training time. It wasn’t until the end of the season that he started feeling anywhere close to 100 percent.
On Connor Heyward: “He has gone above and beyond since I’ve been here to do the right things. He has been a leader. He is a guy that can play multiple positions. He is a guy that understands what receivers are supposed to do and also what running backs are supposed to do. He is honestly just a really darn good football player.”
Coach Peagler went on to say the following about Heyward: “He has probably got the best hands on our offense. He’s guy that I feel you can plug and play anywhere that can help our team. He has actually had some explosive runs this spring. I am sure you probably saw the one that went viral. He had like a 45-yard run in a practice. He has really done a nice job for us.”
As spring practice draws to close, the Spartans are now gearing up for the spring game, which will take place on Saturday, April 24 at 2 p.m. The game will be broadcast live on the Big Ten Network, and approximately 6,000 fans will be allowed to attend the game in person.
Stay tuned to the Only Colors for continuing coverage of Michigan State spring football. Go Green.