Abarca: How Connor Heyward fits MSU’s offense despite key losses

EAST LANSING, Mich. —  Michigan State football has made a living with the ‘next man up’ philosophy. Some of the biggest games in recent history have included stellar performances by walk-ons and backups.

For instance, take the 2014 Rose Bowl with former walk-on Kyler Elsworth. Elsworth took home the defensive MVP in a game that made him the unlikely hero. Or even Tyler O’Connor’s unlikely 2015 win at Ohio State in place of an injured Connor Cook.

Connor Heyward’s story isn’t supposed to be that dramatic, but it could very well end up that way. Heyward had the chance to solidify himself as a backup during spring practices and scrimmages.

After Saturday’s Green vs. White spring game, he’s done just that. With only three carries totaling ten yards last season, he’s primed to see his role improve – especially with the departures of Madre London and Gerald Holmes.

The London-Holmes-LJ Scott trio rushed for 1,489 yards in 2017. Holmes and London combined for almost a third of MSU’s rushing yards and nearly half the amount of total carries. MSU could’ve been in trouble if Scott declared for the NFL draft. But fortunately for the Spartans, he opted to return this season. This gives head coach Mark Dantonio some reassurance about an already thin backfield.

Needless to say, Heyward will have a job to do. Scott is far and away the best running back on the roster, but Heyward will see much more time this coming fall. He carried the ball 11 times for 44 yards and a touchdown during the Green vs, White spring game.

“It’s definitely been a lot, but I think it helps also because I think it helped prepare me for today and obviously LJ. He’s played a lot in his career,” Heyward said about the amount of reps he’s received due to a thin running core. “So he didn’t really need all those reps but I think it helped me tremendously. And it helped LJ I think too, but I think it helped us get in shape a little bit more and just learn everything not from the running back perspective only, but everything.”

Heyward’s versatility might play a factor in how Dantonio uses his 6-foot sophomore next fall.

“He really can play a lot of positions for us,” Dantonio said. He can play on the defensive side of the ball, outside back.. catch the ball very effectively. Be a return guy. He does a lot of different things in the backfield for us. [Heyward] Played quarterback in high school … we got some help coming at that position. [Heyward] Helped LJ out early. Feel good about that position.”

Heyward is confident in his and Scott’s ability to contribute in several ways.

“I think I can help extend plays on third down,” Heyward said. “Me and LJ and all our running backs, I think we’re all versatile enough … I think this year we’ll be able to show that me and LJ are versatile. Receiver, slot, wherever we end up. Not just running the ball.”

Regardless of where he plays, he has the tools, mindset and backing from his teammates.

“He’s athletic, he’s got fantastic hands…I think he really capped off the spring well,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said.

Some focus after the scrimmage was on his ability to throw the football, as a trick play led to a two-point conversion where he hooked up with Rocky Lombardi in the end zone.

“We put that play in today. There was technical difficulties when we were trying to watch it on film. We were going to use it if we had to, and we obviously had to,” Heyward said.

Heyward will be a vital piece to a backfield that is desperately searching for depth. Alante Thomas looked shaky in his spring outing. Collin Lucas saw some action at tailback, in what was a surprise to many. The jury’s still out on recruits Elijah Collins and La’Darius Jefferson, who arrive in the summer.

There’s strong belief that Heyward can step up and serve a much larger role in MSU’s offense. If the former holds true, Scott will gladly hand some of the heavy expected workload to an eager Heyward.