Spartans possess opportunity to kick-start running attack against Tulsa

Luke Sloan, Sports Editor

EAST LANSING, Mich. – The running game, an ever so touchy subject in the minds of nearly everyone who follows Michigan State football. And after pouring over the 2018 results from an offense that has historically prided itself on pounding the football, you can see why so many found themselves discouraged when the Spartans opted to hand off the ball.

The days of Le’Veon Bell and Jeremy Langford running behind physical offensive lines were nowhere to be seen last season, as the Spartans rushed for only 3.5 yards per carry and 124.8 yards per game while finishing 126th out of 130 FBS teams in points per game.

The running game, and the offense in general, was simply disastrous in 2018, fueled in-part by an overcommitment to an ineffective running attack. It’s easy to say that the Spartans will need average at-best results from the offense if they want to compete for a Big Ten title in 2019.

LJ Scott/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

Brad Salem’s hiring as offensive coordinator and the team’s unwillingness to reveal any details about the new offense has many debating about what the unit will look like when it takes the field against Tulsa. Maybe it has undergone major changes during a pivotal offseason, but a steady dose of the running game, something featured frequently in 2018, will be part of the game plan for the season opener.

Tulsa is expected to begin the game with a 3-3-5 defensive scheme, focusing on pass defense and opening up opportunities to run the football against a smaller defensive front. This provides an opportunity for the Spartans to get back to what they love most, pounding the rock in a ball-control offense.

Deep breath.

This may not sound like music to the ears for most football fans in East Lansing, but it will give MSU an ample chance to correct one of its biggest flaws from the previous season. And there’s no way Mark Dantonio will pass up on that opportunity.

Junior Connor Heyward is the Spartans’ best returning running back, as he led the team with 529 yards and five touchdowns on 4.5 yards per carry in LJ Scott’s absence for the majority of 2018. But Dantonio hinted at his team utilizing multiple running backs when asked if Heyward is the clear-cut lead running back.

Connor Heyward/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

“Pretty fluid,” Dantonio told reporters. “I see that running back situation very fluid. Guys are going to get opportunities, especially in the first game of the season. Connor has had a good summer camp, been impressed with really all of our running backs in summer camp. They’ve adapted to some of the new things, been able to retain other things. So we’ll see how they play.”

Other options at running back include sophomore La’Darius Jefferson, the former high school quarterback who rushed for 255 yards in 2018, along with redshirt freshman Elijah Collins and freshman Anthony Williams.

“La’Darius has done a nice job,” Dantonio said. “As a running quarterback, which he was, there is a transition that you have to make moving to a running back position, especially blocking people and things of that nature.

“But he’s a physical guy. He was an outstanding linebacker, as well. He’ll put his pads on you. I think he’s had a great fall camp. I think Connor Heyward has as well and Elijah Collins has as well, I’ve seen a lot of good things.”

Cole Chewins/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

The Spartans will have to re-establish their once-potent running game against Tulsa without starting left tackle Cole Chewins, who has been sidelined for the season opener due to a lingering back injury. Junior offensive tackle AJ Arcuri will start in Chewins’ place, marking the fifth-consecutive season that a different Michigan State left tackle will start game one.

“He (Chewins) struggled with his back here throughout preseason,” Dantonio said. “Right now he’s sort of on a day-to-day basis, we’ll see where he’s at. We do anticipate he’ll be able to play at some point. He has had some time off here as of late.”

Dantonio and his restructured offensive staff has kept any information about the new offensive scheme under lock and key, often deflecting questions from the media, but a steady diet of what’s hoped to be an improved running attack will be on the menu against Tulsa.

Contact Luke Sloan at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @LukeSloan_7.