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2023 Football Preview: The Running Backs

Tailback play in the Tucker era has been up and down - How will 2023’s group stack up?

Syndication: Lansing State Journal
Incoming transfer Nathan Carter works on his footwork in a drill during Spring Practice. Is he the spark the MSU running game needs?
Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Since Mel Tucker was hired as Michigan State’s head football coach in early 2020, few things have been quite as erratic as the running back position. In the shortened 2020 season, no Spartan tailback scored a rushing touchdown in the disappointing 2-5 campaign. In 2021, Kenneth Walker III cemented his place among Spartan greats from the first play of the season, taking a 75 yard rush to the endzone against Northwestern. 2022 saw the arrival of two new transfers in Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard, who were both perfectly adequate. As offensive line play hopefully improves (Our preview here) 2023 brings with it a new cast of running backs, and a new sense of hope for the highs of the charmed 2021 season.

First, Some Recent History

Michigan State’s recent history has been quite good in the running back department. In the Mark Dantonio era, MSU ran the ball well with some notable backs - starting with Javon Ringer, Dantonio’s Spartans included Edwin Baker, LeVeon Bell, Jeremy Langford, and LJ Scott. As the Dantonio era faded, the rushing attack lost a step, and the rest of the offense suffered as well.

Enter Mel Tucker and his staff.

Tucker’s inaugural season took place against the backdrop of the worst part of the Covid pandemic, as the coach largely hired for his recruiting chops had to pitch his new program to potential Spartans via Zoom. In the Covid-shortened 7 game season, MSU’s rushing game was led by Connor Heyward and Jordon Simmons. Elijah Collins, who had shined in the final season under Mark Dantonio, had fought a particularly nasty bout of Covid during that first pandemic spring, and it affected his performance well into the season. Heyward’s performance in the unlikely win against Northwestern was the high water mark for the group that year, as he talllied 96 yards. Simmons, one of the last recruits of the Dantonio era, topped out at 72 in the finale against Penn State. No back scored a rushing touchdown.

Entering the 2021 season, Tucker and his staff utilized the transfer portal, landing Kenneth Walker III from Wake Forest. Walker’s season needs no recap, as it was one of the greatest performances in Spartan football history and brought him home the Walter Camp Player of the Year award. Walker opened the season with a 264 yard, 4 touchdown showing at Northwestern and never looked back. Returning sophomore Jordon Simmons cleared the 100 yard mark against Youngstown State, and Elijah Collins held onto the third spot in the group.

In 2022, Walker departed for the Seattle Seahawks, and Tucker and crew went back to the portal looking to strike gold yet again. They brought in Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard from Wisconsin and Colorado respectively. Berger had been dismissed from the Badgers during the 2021 season, reportedly unhappy with the direction of the program. Broussard, a former Pac 12 offensive player of the year at Colorado, spent his final year as a college football player in East Lansing. Neither came close to the highs of the Walker season, with Berger leading the way as the clear #1. Elijah Collins regained some of his pre-Covid form, slotting in as a solid #2 option, with Jarek Broussard falling off from his performances in Boulder. Even with the inconsistent and injury-riddled offensive line situation, the Spartans’ running back group was putrid in an all around disappointing season.

2023: The Cast

#5 - Nathan Carter

This offseason, the MSU coaching staff has once again dipped its toes into the transfer portal water, this time pulling Nathan Carter in from Connecticut. Carter was a standout in his first two seasons with the Huskies. In the first four games of 2022, Carter rushed for 405 yards before suffering a shoulder injury in Ann Arbor that ended his year. This came after a true freshman season in 2021 that saw him start 4 games and play in all 12.

Since he got to East Lansing, he’s been all over social media as a strength and conditioning superstar, and he’s gotten some attention in training camp too

A lil slide in his glide, indeed.

Besides the obviously improved offensive line situation, Carter is the biggest reason for excitement in the MSU running game. He’s fast, looks to have excellent vision and burst, and he was the obvious best piece of an undermanned UConn team in his first two seasons in college football. While fans wanted Berger and Broussard to be the next Kenneth Walker, Nate Carter is the one who actually has a chance to come close.

#1 - Jaren Mangham

The second of the two-headed transfer monster, Jaren Mangham is as much of a journeyman as one can be in college football. Mangham, whose brother Jaden suits up for the Spartans as a defensive back, spent the past two seasons at USF, leading the Bulls in rushing in 2021. Prior to his arrival in Tampa, Mangham played for Colorado, his freshman season in Boulder being Mel Tucker’s only season with the Buffaloes. Mangham has been a perfectly solid college running back, even if his four star recruiting profile out of Cass Tech set expectations unreasonably high.

According to RBs coach Effrem Reed, Mangham has established himself as a leader in the position room, as Mangham joined the squad before spring practice. His experience should be valuable for the Spartans.

#8 - Jalen Berger

2022’s leading rusher returns for the 2023 season, as Jalen Berger suits up in the green and white for his second season. Berger had an underwhelming 2022, even if we disregard his unenviable task of following Kenneth Walker. Berger found the endzone 6 times in 2022 and logged 683 yards on the ground. Berger cleared the 100 yard mark in 3 games, against Western Michigan, Akron, and Indiana.

Last year, Berger showed that he was dangerous against weaker competition. Half of his touchdowns came against Akron, and two thirds of his hundred yard showings were against MAC schools. With Nate Carter’s arrival, Berger won’t need to be the primary back, and should offer a solid change of pace. With Carter’s explosiveness and Jaren Mangham’s power run game, Berger should find his footing and take a step forward in his redshirt junior season.

#3 - Jaelon Barbarin

If there’s one thing that Jaelon Barbarin brings to the table for this year’s squad, it’s speed. Barbarin doesn’t have the size that others do, but the 5’9 true freshman makes up for that with his quickness. The three star recruit out of California was a Swiss Army Knife for Chaminade High School, and was an exceptional sprinter, setting records in the 100 meter dash.

Barbarin’s time seeing the field will likely be limited in the crowded Spartan backfield, but when he touches the ball, he could easily make the defense pay.

#22 - Jordon Simmons

Jordon Simmons has been one constant of Mel Tucker’s tenure at Michigan State, committing to the Spartans during Mark Dantonio’s final season at the helm, then ultimately signing with MSU after Tucker’s hiring. Simmons was one of the primary offensive weapons in the 2020 Covid season, leading the team in rushing, despite only playing in five games. The Georgia native was Kenneth Walker’s primary backup in the 2021 season, starting the Peach Bowl and lighting up Youngstown State on the ground.

In 2022, Simmons was primarily a special teams player, handling just a handful of carries behind Berger, Broussard, and Elijah Collins.

With the new additions, it seems likely that Simmons will remain toward the bottom of the depth chart. If needed, Simmons has a wealth of experience to lean on.

So, what should we expect?

Well, that’s a tricky question. Last season, everyone’s perspective was tilted by Kenneth Walker’s unbelievable 2021, and with a pair of incoming transfers, the expectations were sky high. Maybe Berger and Broussard were both as underutilized in their previous offenses as Walker was at Wake Forest. Maybe that change of scenery and scheme would fit and they’d be a two headed monster. Maybe the offensive line would take a step forward.

None of those things happened.

MSU’s running game was just....not good. Not abysmal, as it was in 2020. Not elite, as it was in 2021. It was not up to the standards of what a top tier Big Ten program should feature. 2023 should be an improvement.

Nate Carter is one of the more exciting players we’ve seen in a while. Jaren Mangham should be a threat around the goal line, and the returning rushing leader Berger should take a step forward.

If the offensive line depth is actually better and both units stay healthy, this should be a far less frustrating season when the Spartans carry the football.

We’ll know more on Friday night.