SRZ: LJ Scott finally has the spotlight to himself. What’s next?

The Spartan Red Zone panel is starting their preview of the 2018 college football season with a position-by-position breakdown of the 2018 Michigan State roster. Today’s preview focuses on the running backs. For a breakdown of the quarterbacks, Joey Ellis has more.

Michigan State runs an old-school offense. They move the ball by out-muscling their opponents and running it down their throats. Regardless of how well the Spartans may throw the football, this basic ideology will remain true of any Mark Dantonio-coached team.

The Spartans lost two of their three top running backs in Madre London and Gerald Holmes, the latter to graduation and the former to a transfer. But more significant than who the Spartans lost is who they retained in soon-to-be senior LJ Scott.

Scott is perhaps the third-best returning running back in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Ohio State’s JK Dobbins. He has yet to cross the 1,000-yard barrier in a single season, although he was six yards shy in 2016. Last year, he averaged 4.5 yards per carry, his lowest in three years. However, he saw an expanded role in the passing game with 20 receptions for 146 yards. He also rushed for 100-plus yards in three separate games against Minnesota, Maryland and Washington State.

Talent-wise, Scott is as good as they come. But to take the next step, he needs to do two things. First, hang on to the football as he lost five fumbles last year. Second, avoid taking plays off. There were times when Scott would blindly run into the defense, and that is where the trouble came.

Scott has power, but that’s not his strongest suit. He’s at his best when remaining patient, keeping balance and using vision and change of speed to his advantage. When these attributes are in full go, he often attracts Le’Veon Bell comparisons.

Luckily for Scott, he should have an improved offensive line to work with, combined with the constant reminder of the NFL Draft looming. This may push him to ever-greater heights as the Spartans’ leading tailback. He may also be selected as a team captain, as he was one of three MSU players to represent the Spartans at Big Ten Media Day. While there are plenty of improvements that need to be made, any team with someone like Scott in the backfield should be sitting pretty.

Connor Heyward figures to be a promising No. 2 at the running back position. Heyward played most of the Green vs. White Spring Game and had a strong showing, recording 44 yards on 11 carries. Heyward is quick and athletic compared to Scott’s sheer power and punishing demeanor.

Heyward might also see time as a slot receiver and kick returner. He could be converted into an RJ Shelton type of player. He will never overtake Scott’s lead role barring an injury, but MSU co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner might try to find a few creative ways to use him both in the passing and running game.

“I don’t see a guy on that field who can’t play,” Scott told at MSU’s media day. “Everyone on the offense has the ability to do great things and collectively as a team we have the ability to do great things as well.”

The biggest question mark at the running back position is finding a No. 3 back. If Scott and Heyward remain healthy, this isn’t too important of a question. If either fall with injury, it becomes very important.

In the spring game, second-year walk-on Alante Thomas looked like the leading third-string candidate. He had a couple big runs, but coughed up three fumbles and lost one. Saginaw Valley State transfer Noah Sargent and even fullback Collin Lucas also had a few touches late in the game.

True freshmen Elijah Collins and La’Darius Jefferson may also compete for playing time, especially with the new redshirt rule that allows freshmen to play in four games without burning their redshirt.

Collins is a 6-foot, 194-pound back from the University of Detroit Jesuit H.S. According to 247Sports’ composite rankings, he is a three-star recruit and the No. 38 running back in the nation. Collins might need to add a little weight, but is still decently sized with a good first step and explosiveness.

Jefferson stands at 6-foot-2 and 209 pounds. He played quarterback at Muskegon H.S. in Michigan, although Dantonio claims he will play running back at MSU. Jefferson is not traditionally a running back but is dynamic and versatile with excellent size. He also rushed for 1,850 yards and 29 touchdowns in his last season of high school play, so his open-field running shouldn’t be in question.

Michigan State traditionally runs the ball well under Dantonio. They’ve had two running backs get drafted since 2013 in Bell and Jeremy Langford with three 1,000-yard seasons between the two of them. With a veteran offensive line combined with soon-to-be four-year starter LJ Scott and dynamic backup Connor Heyward, the Spartans could have one of the better rushing attacks in the country. There is still a lot to figure out depth-wise, which is the biggest thing holding this unit back. Still, the Spartans should be in very good shape with their running backs.

Lucas is the Spartans’ main fullback, although the Spartans will not use him on every run. He is primarily a run-blocker with the occasional ability to make contributions in the run and pass game. Even so, don’t expect the fifth-year senior to receive the ball too often, not even to the same degree as Trevon Pendleton. After Lucas, Ben Line and Reid Burton figure to be the next two players in the depth chart. However, neither will likely play barring an injury.

Grade: A-