In suddenly crowded backfield, Michigan State might no longer be running on empty

With the arrival of two running backs, the Spartans’ backfield has not only…

In suddenly crowded backfield, Michigan State might no longer be running on empty
In suddenly crowded backfield, Michigan State might no longer be running on empty 1

Matt Charboneau
| The Detroit News

Mel Tucker never hid the fact he planned to perform a significant overhaul to Michigan State’s roster once the abbreviated 2020 season came to an end.

It began when Tucker, who went 2-5 in his first season leading the Spartans, signed 18 players to his first recruiting class in early December and the shuffling picked up steam from there as players started filing into the NCAA transfer portal.

By the end of last week, 15 Michigan State players had entered the portal since the season began, with six of them already committing to new schools. At the same time, the Spartans have welcomed five players in from the portal with graduate transfer quarterback Anthony Russo the only one, to this point, who has officially become part of the roster.

“We’re going to be very active in the portal, as well,” Tucker said on his weekly radio show in late November as he talked about recruiting. “Anyone that is a fit for our culture and can play the type of football that we need to play here and is willing to do what it takes to handle and thrive in our academic environment here, those are all guys that we are looking to acquire and add to our team.”

In addition to Russo, who will likely be battling redshirt freshman Payton Thorne for the starting spot in the fall, Michigan State added offensive lineman Jarrett Horst from Arkansas State and graduate transfer defensive end Drew Jordan from Duke.

Each could have an immediate impact this fall, but the other two incoming transfers have added to a position group that has changed significantly in the past couple of months. With the arrival of two running backs — Harold Joiner III of Auburn and Kenneth Walker III of Wake Forest — the Spartans’ backfield has not only become crowded, but it has potentially added quite an influx of talent.

Along with freshman Jordon Simmons, junior Connor Heyward and sophomore Elijah Collins, an interesting battle for carries and snaps could be brewing, and that’s not even including sophomore Brandon Wright, freshman Donovan Eaglin and incoming freshman Davion Primm.

There’s still a chance a player or two decide to transfer out — in fact, a better than average chance, really — but for now, it’s worth trying to break down where everyone stands as part of a running attack desperate for a boost. Last season, Michigan State ran for only 91.4 yards a game, which ranked 13th in the Big Ten and better than only five other teams in the entire country.

It’s a trend that’s been heading in the wrong direction for the past four years, but with plenty of new faces in the backfield, there’s some optimism heading into 2021. Here’s a look at each tailback and how they might fit into Michigan State’s plans.

Returning players

►Jordon Simmons, Fr.: The first-year back from Marietta, Ga., showed the most of any of the running backs in 2020, averaging 3.9 yards a carry while providing some of the burst that running backs coach William Peagler said before the season made Simmons a “home-run threat.” Simmons, who missed the Northwestern game, earned one start in five games and saved his best for last, gaining 72 yards on 14 carries in the season finale at Penn State when the Spartans opened a 21-10 halftime lead. Simmons finished the season 219 yards on 56 carries and entering spring practice and preseason camp, he’ll have plenty of competition but also a chance to be the Spartans’ primary ball carrier who can also be a threat in the passing game.

►Connor Heyward, Jr.: The versatile back drew plenty of grief from the fans in the past, but after removing himself from the transfer portal last summer and returning to Michigan State, he proved once again that he has value in the Spartans’ offense. An every-down back he’s not, but Heyward is a capable blocker, a good receiver and a tough runner, as evidenced in the win over Northwestern when he ran for 96 yards in the Spartans’ upset victory. With his experience and the trust he has from the coaching staff, it would seem a safe bet that Heyward’s role remains consistent this fall, but the arrival of Joiner, another versatile player, could cut into Heyward’s opportunities.

►Elijah Collins, Soph.: The season Collins had was probably the hardest to explain. After leading Michigan State in rushing in 2019 as a redshirt freshman, big things were expected from the former U-D Jesuit star. However, it was clear from the opener that Collins would not have the same role in 2020. He appeared in all seven games, but after carrying the ball nine times in the opener against Rutgers, he had just 10 carries over the next three games. Collins’ had 13 carries for 34 yards against Northwestern and 37 yards on eight carries the next week against Ohio State, but he had just one rushing attempt at Penn State to close the season. There was never a clear explanation given to his decreased workload, but it was clear when Collins did play he looked a step slower than in 2019. Is he a candidate to transfer or can he rediscover the edge he had as a redshirt freshman? We might have to wait until the spring to find out.

►Brandon Wright, Soph.: At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, Wright has the potential to be an effective back, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations. But let’s be honest, the Spartans haven’t had a ton of goal-line opportunities the past couple of seasons. After appearing in six games as a true freshman in 2019, Wright played in six of seven games in 2020 but did so primarily on special teams. He carried the ball just six times for 13 yards with five of those attempts coming in the Iowa game. With limited opportunities, it will be interesting to see how things shake out for Wright.

►Donovan Eaglin, Fr.: The last player to commit to Mark Dantonio’s final recruiting class in 2020, the 5-11, 230-pound native of Rosharon, Texas, did not dress for a game as a true freshman. Where he stood on the depth chart during the season is tough to say, but with at least four backs in front of him — as well as sophomore Anthony Williams, who eventually entered the transfer portal — it’s easy to see why there was no need to push Eaglin. Whether he gets a shot or not this spring could determine his future with the program.

Incoming players

►Harold Joiner III, Soph.: The former four-star recruit from Auburn was the first running back to commit to Michigan State out of the transfer portal, announcing his decision on Dec. 17. At 6-4 and 230 pounds, Joiner is a unique talent who has proven he can be an integral part of the passing game but it’s still a question as to whether he can be an every-down back. In 11 games at Auburn — he played in the Tigers’ first two games in 2020 before entering the portal — Joiner gained 103 yards rushing with two touchdowns while catching six passes for 128 yards and a touchdown. There’s no doubt Joiner will be given every opportunity to be a regular contributor, likely getting plenty of third-down work with a chance to get a high volume of carries.

►Kenneth Walker III, Soph.: The transfer from Wake Forest made the most of his opportunities over the past two seasons. In just eight games in 2020, Walker ran for 579 yards and 13 touchdowns, tied for third-most in the ACC. As a freshman in 2019, Walker also ran for 579 yards and had four touchdowns, including eight carries for 24 yards with one reception for 2 yards against Michigan State in the Pinstripe Bowl. It’s the sort of production the Spartans could use in their backfield after scoring just two rushing touchdowns in 2020 — one coming from Thorne and the other from tight end Tyler Hunt — and only 12 in a full season in 2019. Expect Walker to push Simmons for the role as Michigan State’s primary ball carrier.

Davion Primm, Fr.: Ranked the No. 2 running back in the state and No. 44 in the nation by 247sports, the Oak Park standout was the first player to commit to Tucker’s class. He’s a tough runner with plenty of speed and is helping Oak Park make an unexpected run in the state playoffs after Oak Park knocked off Livonia Churchill over the weekend to reach the Division 2 semifinals. Primm has plenty of upside, and while it will be a crowded depth chart in East Lansing, he has a chance to become a key contributor down the road.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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