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Michigan State Football 2021 Positional Preview: Running Backs

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It is no secret that the Michigan State Spartans have struggled to run the football for several consecutive seasons, including last season when MSU averaged just 91.4 yards per game (ranking 122nd out of 127 FBS teams) and a mere 2.68 yards per carry (ranking 124th). In fact, the Spartans didn’t have a single running back on the roster who scored a rushing touchdown in 2020.

Of course, a lot of those struggles in the ground game have to do with consistent issues along the offensive line, but the running backs have also been partially responsible for the poor play in the running game that has recently plagued the Spartans. So, head coach Mel Tucker, running backs coach William Peagler and the rest of the Michigan State coaching staff went to the transfer portal for help this past offseason.

The Spartans now enter the 2021 season with an extremely crowded backfield and heavy competition. Kenneth Walker III and Harold Joiner III (transfers) were added to the running backs room, along with true freshman Davion Primm. However, all three of last season’s leading rushers return with Jordon Simmons (219 rushing yards), Connor Heyward (200 rushing yards) and Elijah Collins (90 rushing yards).

The team also returns redshirt freshman Donovan Eaglin, who didn’t see game action in 2020, while Brandon Wright transitioned to the other side of the ball in the spring to play defensive end.

Expect a lot of different tailbacks to get touches this season. Let’s take a closer look at the running backs on the roster:

Kenneth Walker III, redshirt sophomore

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In early January, Walker announced he would be transferring to Michigan State from Wake Forest, and he enrolled at MSU later that month. He is expected to make an immediate impact for the Spartans as either the starter or, at the very least, a heavily-involved rotational player (my money is on the former).

Walker impressed during the spring game, and was recently named preseason first-team All-Big Ten by Pro Football Focus. While he was with the Demon Deacons, Walker rushed for 1,158 yards and 17 touchdowns in just 20 games during his first two seasons.

Walker believes he will bring explosiveness to the Spartans, and will be able to make plays for his team. Here is what he had to say during his first media availability in April:

“I believe I’m an explosive back,” Walker said. “I think my best thing is explosiveness, being able to go in and out of my cuts, and my vision.”

Walker also simply added that he just wants to be a good teammate, contribute and help MSU chase conference championships.

As for Coach Peagler, he seemed to be impressed by the Wake Forest transfer throughout the spring. Here is what Peagler had to say about Walker in April:

“The number one thing that Ken has brought to room is competition,” Peagler said. “He has also brought an element of elevating everyone’s game. Everyone noticed right away that the guy has got a pretty special skill set.

“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.”

Jordon Simmons, sophomore

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Simmons found playing time right away as a true freshman during the shortened 2020 season. He played in five of the team’s seven games, and started against Indiana. Simmons led the Spartans with 219 rushing yards and 43.8 yards per game, but was just second on the team in carries with 56 (3.9 yards per carry average). He also added five catches for 34 yards in the passing game.

Simmons flashed his potential throughout his freshman campaign, including a season-long rush of 28 yards in the victory over Michigan. He also had 10 of his carries go for a first down (which also led the Spartans) and three of his catches went for first downs as well. Simmons set a new career-high against Penn State with 76 rushing yards on 14 attempts (5.4 yards per carry).

Of course, Simmons had his struggles, too. While he often showed good burst, speed and vision, he struggled with consistency in his overall game, as most freshmen do. He also had some durability issues (missing the games against Northwestern and Ohio State with an injury). In his first career game against Rutgers, Simmons lost a fumble (and so did just about everybody else on Michigan State’s offense that day), but that was his only lost fumble of the season on record.

Simmons should play a role in MSU’s backfield in 2021, even if Walker is ahead of him on the depth chart. If Simmons continues to improve during fall camp and throughout the season, he and Walker could form a formidable one-two punch.

Peagler on 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.”

Connor Heyward, redshirt senior

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Heyward decided to return to Michigan State in 2020 after briefly entering the transfer portal in 2019. Tucker and the rest of the new MSU staff, along with his teammates, all welcomed Heyward back with open arms.

The staff often points to Heyward’s leadership, toughness and versatility — rushing, receiving and pass blocking prowess — as reasons why the coaches love what Heyward brings to the table.

Here is what Peagler said about Heyward during the spring.

“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.

“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...He has really done a nice job for us.”

However, while Heyward does have a unique skill set, he often struggled last season. Heyward averaged less than 3.1 yards per carry, totaling 200 rushing yards on 65 attempts (less yards on more attempts compared to Simmons). He also averaged just 28.6 yards per game. He did add 18 catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

The potential is there for Heyward to make an impact. He actually led the Spartans in rushing in 2018 with 529 yards and five rushing touchdowns. He was named one of five finalists for the Paul Hornung Award, which is given to the nation’s most versatile player, and named honorable mention All-Big Ten as kick returner that year.

Heyward has flashed multiple times. For him, it is all about being able to perform on a consistent basis — something that has escaped him.

Elijah Collins, redshirt junior

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Collins is probably the most intriguing running back on the roster. After leading the Spartans in rushing in 2019 with 988 yards (which ranked fourth in the Big Ten) and five rushing touchdowns that season, Collins came into the 2020 season with big expectations, but severely struggled.

It wasn’t until this past April when Collins revealed he had tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020, which could have been a big reason why he had such a disappointing season.

“I tested positive for COVID-19 (last summer) and it kind of took a toll on me back then,” Collins said. “I lost weight, muscle, wind, all of that stuff. It really took a deep effect. But I didn’t have any symptoms to start out with, so that’s what was kind of scary to me, like, ‘How many lingering effects will it have?’ But for me, those effects lasted a couple of weeks, but after that, I didn’t even think twice about COVID. I kind of put it behind me, and just was like ‘What can I do now? Where can I go from here?’ I’ve been putting the work in every single day (to improve).”

Last season, Collins rushed for just 90 yards on 41 carries (2.2 yards per carry) with four catches for 34 yards and zero touchdowns of any kind. Collins expects to look more like the 2019 version of himself this coming season, and Peagler agrees.

“Elijah is a different person this spring,” Peagler said. “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.”

Harold Joiner III, redshirt junior

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Joiner announced his decision to transfer from Auburn to Michigan State in December, and then joined the team in May.

Similarly to Collins, the exact role Joiner will play for the Spartans, and how the team will use him, is interesting to ponder. As mentioned, the backfield is already crowded, with at least four other players who will be fighting for touches (plus Eaglin and Primm will be looking to move up the depth chart as well). Adding Joiner to the mix gives the Spartans a former four-star recruit and a big tailback (6-foot-4, 231 pounds) who can make an impact in multiple ways.

Joiner played three seasons at Auburn, but preserved his redshirt by playing in only two games as a true freshman. Given that all 2020 fall athletes were given an extra year of eligibility via a waiver due to COVID-19, Joiner still has up to three years of eligibility left.

In 17 career games with the Tigers, Joiner recorded 15 carries for 103 rushing yards (6.9 yards per carry), with two touchdowns on the ground. He also had six catches for 128 yards (21.3 yards per catch) and one receiving touchdown.

While there are a lot of bodies in the backfield already, it will be interesting to see if the coaching staff comes up with specific packages for Joiner. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson could try to scheme the ball into Joiner’s hands both on the ground or through the air. At the very least least, Joiner will provide solid depth in the backfield, but he transferred to MSU for a reason and likely expects to get playing time.

Others on roster:

  • Donovan Eaglin, redshirt freshman, Manvel High School (Texas)
  • Davion Primm, true freshman, Oak Park High School (Michigan)

In conclusion, it would make sense to anticipate Walker leading the team in rushing in 2021, but also expect to see several running backs get carries throughout the season. This should be a much-improved group for the Spartans.