April 4, 2013
EAST LANSING, Mich. - There will be a different look in the backfield during Michigan State's first spring scrimmage on Friday afternoon.
Gone is first-team All-Big Ten selection Le'Veon Bell, who led the nation in carries last season with 382 and ranked third in the NCAA FBS in rushing, averaging 137.9 yards per game. Bell's production as a junior was staggering - he accounted for 92 percent of the team's rushing yards in 2012 and scored 12 of the team's 13 rushing touchdowns.
His early departure to the NFL has opened the door for juniors Nick Hill (5-8, 193) and Jeremy Langford (6-0, 206) and red-shirt freshman Nick Tompkins (5-9, 185) to state their case this spring for the starting position. A trio of freshmen - Gerald Holmes (6-1, 205), R.J. Shelton (5-11, 190) and Delton Williams (6-2, 205) - will also join the mix for playing time during preseason camp.
"The competition will get a little more fierce as summer rolls around," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio.
For now, the three on campus are ready to prove they belong in the rotation.
"I think there's a big opportunity this year," said Hill, who is the leading active rusher on the team - but with only 163 yards on 51 carries. "I've been very patient the past three years with Le'Veon (Bell), Edwin (Baker) and Larry (Caper) in front of me. Since all of those guys have left, I've learned a lot from them. They pushed me to be all I can be."
Hill is the most experienced of the contenders, and Dantonio said the biggest thing right now is that Hill is "confident." The rising junior from Chelsea, Mich., has made an impact as a kick returner the past two seasons, as he already ranks third in MSU history with 1,669 kickoff return yards. He showed his promise as a running back in the Nebraska game, rattling off back-to-back rushes of 9 and 21 yards, respectively, on a third-quarter drive that led to an MSU field goal.
Langford started his Spartan career as a running back, but has bounced around from cornerback in 2011 to wide receiver last year before finally settling in as a tailback.
"You get to learn more at the spot day by day without having to switch," remarked Langford. "So now I know - I'm playing running back. I can get in the film room, watch the running back stuff, and be a student of the game."
Tompkins, who is still just in his first year of school, has an early chance to make an impression.
"Watching (Nick and Jeremy) make plays just makes you want to be even better, so it definitely builds a fire inside of you to compete hard and work hard," said Tompkins, a native of Snellville, Ga., who rushed for 1,225 yards (6.1 avg.) and 11 TDs as a senior at Brookwood High School in 2011. "I'm just excited to get the opportunity to show the coaches what I can do, so I can work my way up and get on the field next year."
All three admittedly have several aspects of their game they want to improve on during spring practice.
"(Le'Veon) taught me that you need to know exactly what you're doing in the film room and that's going to translate onto the field," said Hill. "Before Le'Veon left, the question was `could I run power?' Talking with him to give me pointers there, he's helped me to run with more power behind my legs and behind my body."
Said Langford: "I just have hit the hole a little harder at times and not second guess myself, and know I've got the ability to do it."
"Not stopping in the hole too much, just putting the foot into the ground and getting vertical," said Tompkins. "And also blocking, I really want to work on that, and keeping the ball tight inside because you've got the DBs trying to strip the ball every chance they get."
Dantonio has been clear on what he's looking for from the running back position, which is now coached by co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner.
"I think you have to have the ability to run behind your pads, create explosive plays, (and) hold onto the football; ball security is so big," Dantonio said. "As you get to scrimmages, I think things get a little bit more clearer for you, and then certainly the spring game, and fall camp as well.
"They have a ways to go - they're young players."
Dantonio said he prefers having Hill, Langford and Tompkins compete in the spring, while evaluating the freshmen once they arrive in East Lansing.
"I think it's going to be easier to evaluate because you're going to get the touches and the reps," commented Dantonio at his spring football preview press conference. "They're going to be able to carry the football and not have to split reps six ways. They can split it three ways, and I think that provides opportunities. You're going to get a good feel for exactly who's in the mix and then who carries it forward to the fall. And then when fall camp comes, I think what you'll see is these other guys getting some touches and seeing how they react and move forward from there."
Whoever emerges as the leading back out of spring practice, one thing is certain - the battle will only continue once preseason camp heats up during August.
"You come play Division I football, it's going to be competitive," said Langford. "That's what's good about it. You can't relax."
"Nick Hill, (Jeremy) Langford and (Nick) Tompkins have all had moments," Dantonio stated. "Consistency - we need to find consistency. If there's one place that freshmen have played consistently since we've been here, it's been at the tailback position...so they're going to get competition, there's no question about that. I'm not going to sit here and say that they're not. So they need to be more consistent, create big plays, and run behind their pads."