By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Jeremy Langford has been subjected to every coaching technique in the book.
In his first four years at Michigan State, he was challenged, cajoled, demoted, converted, comforted, encouraged, and finally, reborn as a tailback who rushed for 1,422 yards and a Big Ten-leading 18 touchdowns during the Spartans' championship run in 2013.
Few careers have been as stringently managed as Langford's, and the what-ifs that may have had a jolting effect on history had they come to fruition, abound.
What if he had succeeded just enough on defense to stay there after switching from running back to cornerback as a redshirt freshman in 2011? What if he had caught on as a wide receiver in 2012? What if coach Mark Dantonio had canceled one of Langford's visits to his office?
Who's to say the Spartans would have still won the Big Ten championship and beaten Stanford in the 100th Rose Bowl with someone else carrying the ball 292 times? Langford doesn't question how it all worked out, just that it did.
"I wouldn't change anything about it," Langford said at MSU Media Day. "I think it made me the person I am at running back today. I'm glad I played defense and I'm glad I played special teams. That's what we do at Michigan State.
"No one ever goes from not playing anything to being a starter. I realized that as I got older."
Langford's issues ranged from on-field to off-the-field, and getting through them is testament perseverance by all parties.
As recently as this time last year, he was in a duel for the starting position with Riley Bullough, a burly linebacker on loan to the offense. Langford repaid Dantonio's faith in him after narrowly winning the job rushing for 94 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in the opener against Western Michigan.
He had a breakout performance five games later with 109 yards and three TDs on 23 carries versus Indiana. It was his first 100-yard game and the first of a school- record eight in a row.
Langford credited the talks he had with Dantonio, "the good and the bad," with keeping him invested in the team and himself.
"The best talk was this past summer because there wasn't too much to say," said Langford, a sociology major. "I've been doing good in school and everything I've been working on off the field. The bad talks were when I was getting switched from DB to receiver and not able to be comfortable.
"But he still had trust in me that I could play somewhere, and he was giving me a chance. It took me maturing to realize that. It was just knowing that it can always get worse. I'm glad he kept me here, and he talked to me. He never gave up on me."
Langford's improbable journey has taken him from backing up a linebacker who never played the position at any level to NFL.com's list of "Top Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2014."
With all the other aspects of his career in good order going into his final season, Langford said he is looking forward to a new set of challenges coming first and foremost from teammates Nick Hill, Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and impressive true freshman Madre London.
"And there's other running backs in the nation and the Big Ten that I compete against," he said. "That makes me push myself even harder.
"(But) no one's bigger than the program. It took the whole team to make it to where we were at. It's not about individual goals. The better we play and the more exposure we get as a team, the more exposure we'll get individually. So I just play for the team and will try to get back to the Big Ten Championship and even higher goals."
Langford's image may be dramatically different these days, but the thought of being switched back to defense or losing the job continues to haunt him.
"It changed for the fans and everybody else, but for me personally, inside the room, I'm still working like I'm not the starter," he said. "Don't become complacent - that's what Coach D has been talking about since the season started.
"There's always someone behind you that's pushing you. That's how it's been since I was in high school. I was never the most-recruited person and I wasn't the most popular person to play running back here. I just kept working. The most important part is to stay humble and stay hungry."
Co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner will have plenty of options if Langford falters.
"Jeremy became a good player for us because I think he learned to run behind his pads a little bit better as the season wore on," Warner said. "He became stronger as games went on. At 205 pounds he was able to run with power, but as we saw time and time again he was able to spring himself in the secondary for a big play and make guys miss.
"Delton Williams (38 carries, 238 yards, one TD in '13) is a guy that came on a little bit. He provides a change of pace for us because he's 230 pounds, runs with pretty good power and has good hands. We're looking for him to continue to improve. Nick Hill (67 carries, 344 yards, 1 TD) is more of your scatback-type guy and I keep saying we've got to find touches for him. Madre London is a big back with speed that we expect big things from, but the jury's out."
Langford, who'll be pleading his case for a fifth year, can attest to that.