Top 40 RBs in MSU History
The task of ranking players is inherently subjective. Stats vs. legacy, awards vs. production, fan fare vs. achievements, weighing all of that, in addition to the dynamic of ranking players across more than 100 years of football, is nearly impossible. However, it's the off-season, so we're going to do it anyway!
I know the results of this list are going to confuse, upset, annoy, and frustrate some fans who feel like their favorite player is too far down the list, and I am fully aware of the controversial nature of "lists". I promise you, the controversy is not my intention. I love the history of this program, from the days of The Michigan Agricultural Aggies, to the dominance of Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty, to the modern days of Nick Saban, and Mark Dantonio. There has been a lot of mediocre to bad football in our history to go along with the great, but through it all there have been many transcendent players both on and off the field. My goal in doing this is to highlight some of the names that might be forgotten as we move ahead into the future. It's easy to make a top 5 list. It's incredibly hard to make a top 40.
With all that being said, after hours and hours of research, and gallons and gallons of coffee, I present to you, the top 40 running backs in Michigan State Football history. (highlights linked when available)
40) Larry Caper (2009-202)
As a true freshman in 2009, Larry Caper took a 3rd and 8 hand-off in Spartan Stadium against UofM in overtime, bounced it outside, broke a tackle, and took it 23 yards to the house for MSU's first Paul Bunyan win in East Lansing since 2001. After that year, he was overtaken in the depth chart by Edwin Baker and later, Le'Veon Bell, but he will always hold a special place in Spartan hearts for that play. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElgkiaVWYac)
39) Deandra Cobb (2003-2004)
Cobb was a junior college transfer who could have been higher on this list with a longer MSU career. As a true running back, Cobb's best season was 2004 when he topped the team with 728 yards (on 7.6 ypc), but it was his impact in the return game that made me feel he belonged here. In just 2 seasons, Cobb is 5th all-time in kick return yards, 31st in all-purpose yards, and 1st in kick return TDs (4, one shy of the Big Ten record). One of the most electrifying players with the ball in his hands to ever play at Spartan Stadium.
38) Jason Teague (2002-2005)
While he never had the backfield to himself, often splitting carries with Jehuu Caulcrick, Deandre Cobb, Javon Ringer, and QB Drew Stanton, Jason Teague carved himself a place in MSU history with a productive career. I will always remember his walk-off TD in OT on the road against a top 10 ND team, but he also remains top 30 in rushing yards in MSU history.
37) Conner Heyward (2017-Present)
Conner Heyward is entering his 5th season in East Lansing, but it feels like his 15th. A return man as a true freshman, he started earning more RB reps as a sophomore as one of the more versatile players in all of college football with 529 yards rushing, 249 yards receiving, and 287 yards returning. Heyward enters his redshirt senior season with 2,750 all-purpose yards.
36) Elijah Collins (2018-Present)
Eli Collins is still just a redshirt jr. but has had a roller coaster of a career already. As a redshirt freshman, Collins came out of nowhere and finished 4th in the Big Ten in rushing yards with just under 1,000. 2020 became a lost season for him after dealing with covid, but he will look to get back on track and climb his way up this list as he lines up in 2021. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AO0eaPLELnc)
35) Don McAuliffe (1950-1952)
Don McAuliffe doesn't have multiple years of great production to lean on, but he does have one of the great seasons in Spartan history under his belt. McAuliffe was the captain of the undefeated, national champion team in 1952 and finished an All-American and 8th in Heisman voting with 725 total yards and 9 TDs.
34) Derek Hughes (1978-1981)
Derek Hughes' all-time production may not match up with a lot of players on this list, but he was a big play threat every time he touched the ball. To this day he is #5 all-time (min. 150 carries) with 6.04 yards per carry. Two torn ACLs unfortunately leaves us wondering what could have been with a full healthy career from Hughes.
33) Don Highsmith (1967-1969)
While Don Highsmith played for legendary MSU coach Duffy Daugherty, he unfortunately just missed out on the glory years of the early to mid '60s. That said, he put together an outstanding senior season in 1969, leading the team in rushing by a wide margin with 937 yards on 209 carries.
32) Richard Baes (1973-1976)
While he was never a feature back, Baes always seemed to make a role for himself as an effective #2 behind Levi Jackson. Though he wasn't a workhorse RB, nor was he on a championship team, three years of steady production places him at #17 all-time with 2,234 career rushing yards.
31) Gerald Holmes (2014-2017)
Another in a long line of Flint, MI products to don the green and white, Gerald Holmes was as reliable as they come. Playing as part of a 2-3 headed monster for most of his career with LJ Scott and Madre London, Holmes carved out a significant role finishing with 540 yards and 8 TDs on the 2015 Big Ten Championship winning team, and ran for 1,302 yards and 14 TDs in his career.
30) Nick Hill (2011-2014)
Nick Hill's place on this list is largely due to his versatility displayed through 4 years. His most productive season in terms of purely rushing was 2014 when he took 104 carries for 622 yards, but he ranks #24 in MSU history with 3,099 all-purpose yards thanks to his nearly 2,000 yards in kick/punt returns. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dULFRKAHHJE)
29) Craig Thomas (1990-1993)
There's something to be said about having a nose for the end-zone, and Craig Thomas certainly had that. His 25 career rushing TDs (15 and 9 his final two seasons as a starter) rank 12th in program history.
28) Marc Renaud (1994-1997)
A coaching transition is never easy, but Marc Renaud helped the program move from George Perles to Nick Saban a bit smoother. Saban leaned on Renaud his first season in East Lansing (1995) to the tune of 240 touches for 1,283 yards from scrimmage and 3 TDs.
27) Levi Jackson (1973-1976)
Levi Jackson played in the often forgotten Dennis Stolz era at MSU immediately following Duffy, and made a name for himself in the 1974-75 seasons when he combined for over 2,000 yards and 5 TDs.
26) Scott Greene (1992-1995)
Scott Greene is a player who may have been a bit ahead of his time. In 4 years at Michigan State, Greene ran for just 981 yards, but set program records for catches by a RB with 110 career receptions for 1,085 yards and 7 TDs. His 17 rushing TDs in 1995 is good for the 7th most in a single season in history.
25) Jerry DaPrato (1912-1915)
DaPrato played in an era where football likely didn't even resemble the game we know today. That said he dominated it, becoming the school's first All-American after leading the nation in scoring with 15 TDs in 1915. At that time, MSU football was known as the Michigan Agricultural Aggies, and in the 1915 season we defeated the likes of UofM, Olivet, Alma, Carroll, and Marquette, while losing our only game of the season to Oregon Agricultural.
24) Steve Smith (1977-1980)
To this day, Steve Smith finds himself #11 on the list of career rushing yards in program history with 2,676. His place on this list is a recognition of consistency (between 888-1,071 yards from scrimmage his final three seasons), and his role as the leading rusher on the 1978 Big Ten Championship winning team.
23) Everett "Sonny" Grandelius (1948-1950)
Grandelius finished his career with one of the finest seasons put together by a Spartan back. The first 1,000 yard rusher in program history, he was named team MVP and All-American in that 1950 season, and currently finds his name in the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame.
22) LeRoy Bolden (1951-1954)
Bolden made his mark quickly in East Lansing, leading the team with 7.8 ypc on the National Champion team in 1952 in Biggie Munn's final season. The following season, Bolden led the Spartans in Duffy Daugherty's first season with an All-American season on a Big Ten + Rose Bowl winning team that was game away from back to back National Championships.
21) Edwin Baker (2009-2011)
Because of the emergence of Le'Veon Bell, Edwin Baker's name doesn't come up much in the conversation of great RBs of the modern era in MSU football, but it should. Baker was just 5'9, but packed 210 lbs of power into that frame, and finished the 2010 Big Ten Championship winning season as a 1st Team All-Big Ten player after running for 1,201 yards and 13 TDs. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvlnYgGX114)
20) Duane Goulbourne (1992-1996)
Duane Goulbourne was dealt a tough hand in regards to injuries, but was as consistent as consistent gets in his final three seasons (1993, '94, '96). Those seasons Goulbourne finished with 1,100, 1,052, and 1,059 yards from scrimmage with 8 touchdowns in each season.
19) George Guerre (1946-1948)
George Guerre was well before my time, but was a halfback who led MSU in rushing, total offense, and punting for three straight seasons. "Little Dynamite" enrolled at MSU following his Air Force service in WWII, and became one of the most electrifying athletes on the field during his time. Adjusting for era, Guerre's place at #22 in career rushing yards is that much more impressive. Today we find Guerre enshrined in the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame.
18) Hyland Hickson (1988-1990)
After spending two seasons behind Blake Ezor (still to come later in this list), Hickson was given an opportunity in 1990, and put together a great season en route to a Big Ten Championship. That season he split carries with Tico Duckett (again, coming later on the list), and ran for over 1,000 yards on a whopping 10.8 yards per carry. Unfortunately for his personal legacy, Hickson played behind two of the greatest RBs in school history, otherwise he could easily find himself much higher on this list.
17) LJ Scott (2015-2018)
3rd and goal, Big Ten Championship Game with a CFB Playoff spot on the line, LJ Scott turned in one of the most legendary plays in Michigan State football history, breaking multiple tackles and turning into Michael Jordan in Space Jam reaching the ball over the goal line. That season (as a true freshman), Scott finished with 700 yards and 11 TDs and seemed to have an incredibly bright future. Unfortunately the production plateaued, and Spartan fans were left feeling like we never saw "what could have been" with Scott. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ezV3e7uCoY)
16) Jehuu Caulcrick (2004-2007)
The last thing an opposing defensive back wanted to see was Jehuu Caulcrick breaking into the 2nd level. Listed at 6'0 250 lbs, Caulcrick was a punishing runner who became the "thunder" to a "thunder-lightning" combination with Javon Ringer for his final three seasons. To this day he remains #3 in program history with 39 rushing TDs. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAljSBJrOrQ)
15) Lynn Chandnois (1946-1949)
Upon completing his military service in WWII, Lynn Chandnois enrolled at MSU and became one of the great athletes to step foot in East Lansing. Often playing the entire game, Chandnois was a great two-way player, and remains #18 in career rush yards, #9 in career rush TDs, and #2 in career ypc (min. 150 attempts) with 6.55. An All-American honor in his final season solidified his position as one of the greats to ever play at Spartan Stadium.
14) Eric Allen (1969-1971)
In 1971, Eric Allen had one of the greatest football seasons ever seen by a Michigan State Spartan. That season he broke the NCAA single game rushing record with his 29 carry, 350 yard performance against Purdue. He finished that season #10 in Heisman voting, and as a 1st team All-Big Ten player with over 1,400 yards and 18 TDs, pacing the conference in both categories.
13) Bob Apisa (1965-1967)
Bob Apisa played for some of the most impactful teams in college football both on and off the field, and carved out his own role in history. Apisa became the first Samoan player to be named All-American, and due to his status on MSU, he helped usher in American sports culture to Hawaii, with 1966's "Game of the Century" against Notre Dame becoming the first live sports broadcast on the islands. He finished his career as a the starting back, and two-time All-American for the back-to-back National Championship winning teams in 1965-66.
12) John Pingel (1936-1938)
While John Pingel will be remembered as a player who excelled at multiple positions in East Lansing, we'll focus on the running game. He finished his career as a two-time All-American halfback, and finds his name enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame for his contributions during his time.
11) Sherman Lewis (1961-1963)
Sherman Lewis has a claim to fame not many can best, as a multi-sport captain at Michigan State in both football and track & field. The 1963 season will be the one fans turn to when lobbying for Sherman Lewis on this list, when he finished as an All-American and one of only 2 players to finish in the top 3 in Heisman voting (along with the next player on this list) after leading the team in yards from scrimmage and scoring 9 TDs on a top-10 team. To this day he is one of just 5 players in program history with over 6 ypc in at least 150 attempts.
10) Walt Kowalczyk (1955-1957)
Some players are extremely difficult to place, because most of us were too young to watch play, and the differences in era make it nearly impossible to compare stats. Walt Kowalczyk, however, should be recognized as a Spartan legend regardless of era. In the 1957 National Championship winning season, Kowalczyk finished #3 in the Heisman Trophy voting, which remains tied for the highest finish in program history to this day. "The Sprinting Blacksmith" played under Duffy Daugherty in some of the most successful times for MSU, and deserves to be recognized as one of the great athletes to step foot on campus.
9) Sedrick Irvin (1996-1998)
Even in today's more open-minded college football world, a coach turning the running game over to a true freshman isn't a popular decision, in Sedrick Irvin's time it was damn near unheard of. Yet, that's exactly what Nick Saban did, when he gave the ball to Sedrick to the tune of 1,067 yards and 16 touchdowns. Irvin didn't look back, rushing for 1,000+ yards all 3 of his seasons in East Lansing before going pro. If he had come back for his senior season we could have seen his name even higher on this list. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88evZTe1Npg)
8) Jeremy Langford (2010-2014)
Some fans might be surprised to see Jeremy Langford's name this early, but I promise it's not a slight on Langford, but rather a case of incredible talent at the RB position at Michigan State. A player who always seemed to save his best for big games and big moments, Langford started at RB his final two seasons after converting from defense, and racked up over 2,900 yards and a ridiculous 40 TDs on the ground. He also holds a special place in MSU history, with 16 straight Big Ten games with over 100 rushing yards. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWJzqqRJ0jU)
7) Le'Veon Bell (2009-2012)
The 2012 football season won't be looked back on with many fond memories from MSU fans, but one thing we can all appreciate is the effort Le'Veon Bell put forth that season. His 1,793 yards that season rank 2nd in single-season history behind only Lorenzo White in 1985. With the lack of a passing threat, it was a steady dose of Bell who averaged 32 touches per game and was north of 200 yards 3 times that season. Despite just 3 years in East Lansing and a light workload as a freshman, Le'Veon finds himself in the top 7 in career rush yards, TDs, and attempts. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XTy8B9FmSE)
6) TJ Duckett (1999-2001)
For those of you reading who might be too young to remember him, TJ Duckett was a 250 lb back who ran in the 4.4s. The moment we will all remember was the Michigan game in 2001 when he caught the game winning TD as time expired to cap off a 200+ yard game in the upset win, but he will go down in history as one of the great backs in program history. To this day he remains in the top 8 in both career rushing yards and TDs, and is one of a short list of MSU running backs selected in the first round of the NFL draft. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h50Kv5t2RJU)
5) Blake Ezor (1986-1989)
Following in the footsteps of Lorenzo White is a position very few players would want to find themselves, but Ezor took that torch and (literally) ran with it. Blake Ezor in the open field was as dangerous as anybody we've seen come through East Lansing. His ability to make people miss culminated in the #6 and #13 highest single season rushing totals in program history as a junior and senior, as well as the #4 spot in career rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxaUc4dT1oA&t=116s)
4) Tico Duckett (1989-1992)
The elder of the Duckett brothers, Tico burst onto the scene in his memorable 1990 season that remains one of the greatest in Spartan RB history. That season, Tico finished as the Big Ten Offensive MVP after nearly 1,400 yards and 10 TDs, leading the way for a Big Ten Championship season for MSU. After 2 more 1,000 yard seasons, he finds himself #3 on the all-time rushing list with 4,212 yards (nearly 500 yards ahead of Blake Ezor at #4).
3) Javon Ringer (2005-2008)
Four years of production placed Javon Ringer in the MSU record books with over 5,000 yards from scrimmage and nearly 4,300 on the ground, both 2nd in program history, but it's his insane senior season in 2008 that will be remembered by fans long after his playing days. 390 rushing attempts in 13 games. Giving the ball to Ringer was the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd option that season when he was a consensus All-American after finishing with over 1,600 yards and leading the country with 22 TDs. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGz97w4Ya9g)
2) Clinton Jones (1964-1966)
Clinton Jones' impact on and off the field is immeasurable. His teams were not only ground-breaking in the racial landscape of 1960s USA, but also were some of the best teams in the history of college football, and he was a focal point. Jones was a two-time All-American back who finished 6th in the Heisman Trophy voting as a senior before being drafted #2 overall behind only Bubba Smith in the 1967 NFL Draft. When he finished his career he held every major MSU rushing record, and conference records for most rushing yards (268) and TDs (4) in a single game. His name is imprinted in the Spartan Stadium Ring of Honor, as well as the College Football Hall of Fame. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ubbyVHt_Ro)
1) Lorenzo White (1984-1987)
Lorenzo White's places on the MSU record board: career rushing yards #1, career rushing TDs #1, career yards from scrimmage #1, single season rushing yards #1 and #4, career rushing attempts #1, single season rushing attempts #1 and #4, I can keep going but you get the point. On top of that he was a two-time consensus All-American, was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, and is enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. Run around you, run through you, run past you, Lo did all of that, and deserves the #1 spot on this list. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GJfHwsQF8k&t=740s)