Spartan Red Zone: 2017 Running Back Assessment

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While Michigan State may have lost a host of talent at several positions from last season, one thing is certain for the Spartans this upcoming season: there’ll be no loss for talent at the running back position.

It was the year of the running backs for the Big Ten conference last season, with nine tailbacks rushing for over 1,000 yards on the season. Northwestern’s Justin Jackson led all Big Ten backs in total yardage (1,524), but it was Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (1,496) whose breakout season catapulted him into 2017 as one of the favorites to take home the Heisman trophy Dec. 9.

Despite the Spartans not boasting a thousand yard rusher from last season, they return a trio of running backs all with different skill-sets, but most noticeably, they’ve all been a part of championship caliber teams and have the experience it takes to be one of the more heavily relied on units on the offensive side of the ball.

LJ Scott fell just six yards shy of joining the 1,000 yard club, and after several shoulder surgeries, the Spartans’ premier back is healthy and ready to take a big leap in his junior campaign. Despite hinting at leaving school after last season, Scott is poised for a big year and looks to become the Spartans’ first 1,000 yard rusher since 2014 when Jeremy Langford did it. Scott shouldered the majority of the carries last season and seems in line to be the go-to back this season and one of the more intriguing prospects for a potential NFL departure after the season.

After spending his last two seasons primarily leading the Spartan ground attack, the junior from Hubbard, Ohio is viewed as one of the top running backs in the country heading into the 2017 season. Scott has a similar playing style to that of former Spartan and Steeler standout running back Le’Veon Bell, being patient, initially waiting for a hole to open, and when it does, he’s one of the most aggressive runners in the Big Ten and incredibly tough to bring down on initial contact.

Scott may see a large increase in production due to the higher workload he could be shouldering this season, more carries usually means more yards. Scott has also showed significant improvement in his game since his freshman season where he ran for 699 yards, where last season he racked up 994 yards on the ground. Scott also improved his pass-catching ability last season, especially in the latter half of the year. If he improves that area of his game, it’ll make probable starting quarterback Brian Lewerke’s job much easier and make Scott that much more of a load to deal with out of the backfield.

Gerald Holmes, expected to be one of the senior leaders in the fall on a team with just 12 seniors, looks to be a solid complement to Scott as the second tailback. Holmes had 431 yards last season and five touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry on 91 touches and projected as the Spartans’ most powerful runner, especially on third down and short situations. While this Michigan State club is not a senior-loaded team, Holmes will have the opportunity to step up as one of the vocal leaders and veterans to direct the young team.  

Madre London rounds out the last of this deep and talented running back trio, who over the past two seasons have combined for 36 touchdowns, 3,328 yards rushing and 340 receiving yards. While London was the starter for Michigan State just two short seasons ago, he’s taken a backseat to Holmes and Scott. Coming off an impressive spring game, London is looking to play a bigger role for the team in the upcoming season. London showed explosiveness and vision in the spring game, busting a 75-yard touchdown virtually untouched, and he seems poised to bring that to the table as he looks to split more of the backup duties with Holmes.

While most position groups on this team are rather young and inexperienced, the tailback situation for head coach Mark Dantonio may be the most cemented and ready group for this next season. Scott, a preseason 2017 Doak Walker Award watch list candidate, hopes to lead this deep and talented running back trio, who could possibly be the best in the conference, back to the top of the Big Ten and back to the national spotlight that this Spartan team had just two short seasons ago.

Grade: B+

After Prescott Line gave the Spartans a solid year as a graduate transfer, Michigan State is only returning two fullbacks on their roster: redshirt junior Collin Lucas and redshirt freshman Reid Burton. Lucas and Burton, who is the son of defensive line coach Ron Burton, are both walk-ons. With three fullbacks on the Spartan depth chart, expect any one of them to see significant time this season.

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