Running Back Preview
The running back optimism this off-season is a complete anomaly. Generally off-season hype stems from signs from the previous season, a breakout player, a great game, a good stretch to finish the season, etc. Last season we had none of that, in fact, it has been a long time since we have.
Here are the Michigan State finishes in terms of rushing yards per game since 2016:
2016 - 66th
2017 - 60th
2018 - 115th
2019 - 111th
2020 - 123rd
In spite of this, there is a tangible optimism to this RB room, be it because of the arrival of Kenneth Walker III from Wake Forest, or the comeback tour of Elijah Collins who is reportedly back to his 2019 form after a bout with Covid-19, or maybe the 2nd year jump from Jordon Simmons.
The ability to ignore the negative and amplify the positive is what makes a fan a fan. On a completely unrelated note, the offensive line that will be paving the way for these backs is far from proven as a run blocking unit. According to PFF, in 2020 the MSU OL was 123rd in providing rush yards before contact, showing that we were nearly the worst in college football in opening holes for RBs to generate yards before being forced to break a tackle or make somebody miss. We were also 127th in explosive run rate. All this to say that the running game has been bad for a half-decade, and was exceptionally bad in 2020. So why the optimism in 2021?
Enter Kenneth Walker III. The incoming transfer from Wake Forest who has been the subject of more off-season hype than anybody on the roster since arriving prior to spring practice. According to PFF he has been in the top 6 in the country the last two years with an average of 4 yards after contact and 0.32 broken tackles per rush, and when we talk about running behind a line that has struggled to open up holes in the run game, that skill set might be extremely valuable to Jay Johnson in generating some yards on the ground. He also has a ridiculous 17 TDs in 20 career games with an unheard of 8% TD rate per carry. For a team with zero rushing TDs by running backs last year that is a welcome stat.
Alongside Walker is Elijah Collins who looks to regain 2019 form when he was 4th in the conference with 988 yards on 222 carries as a redshirt freshman. At 6'1 225 lbs he looks like he is back after a strong off-season and will look to take a significant carry load with added pass-catching ability after 19 catches the last two seasons.
The man who is quickly becoming the forgotten one in the backfield, Jordon Simmons, turns his eyes to the 2021 season after a good debut last season. As a true freshman in 2020, he received 28 carries the first two games of his Spartan career with a shortened off-season and was clearly the best back on the team for most of the season. After finishing strong with his best performance in the Penn State game to end the year (14 carries for 72 yards), he will look to carry that momentum into his first real off-season in East Lansing.
If you ask me, most of the ground game production will come from those three players, but that's not to say that there isn't more talent on the depth chart. Harold Joiner comes in from Auburn as the highest ranked recruit in the room, standing 6'4 he will look to fill a pass-catching role that has been vacated by Connor Heyward's position change to TE. Donovan Eaglin is a 5'11 235 lb bowling ball who will look to compete for short yardage carries. Lastly Davion Primm is a true freshman from Oak Park who seeks to establish himself on the practice field to compete for a role next season.
When it comes to winning football games in the Big Ten, the ground game is immeasurably valuable. It always has been, it always will be. The running game for Michigan State has shown little signs of life in the last 5 years, but there is a new hope. With roster turnover comes new talent, and if Mel Tucker is serious about turning this into a winning program in year 2, the running backs will be counted on to move the chains with more efficiency. While many Spartan fans have shielded themselves into an "I'll believe it when I see it" approach, many are openly optimistic about what this offense could be with a game-changer like Kenneth Walker. As for me, I believe the committee of this dynamic backfield, paired with an OL who could just get back to league average in terms of run-blocking, could be the reason this Spartan team exceeds 2021 expectations.