Sept. 12, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's ongoing quest to create explosive plays moved in a new direction when true freshman R.J. Shelton lined up at wide receiver last week.
With the Spartans' running-back rotation seemingly set with Jeremy Langford, Riley Bullough and Nick Hill, Shelton appeared destined to do all of his ball-carrying with the scout team during practice.
However, that would have left opponents off the hook from having to plan for Shelton's sprinter's speed while depriving the Spartans' offense of a potential game-breaker.
So, instead of trying to force Shelton into the running-back mix, he was added to the wide receiving corps as a flanker in MSU's 21-6 victory against South Florida and expects to see more action behind starting Z receiver Keith Mumphery Saturday against Youngstown State.
Just what kind of potential are we talking here?
His time in the 40-yard dash coming out Beaver Dam (Wis.) High School is listed at 4.4 seconds. He ran the 100 meters in a wining time of 10.85 in the 2012 Oshkosh West Sectional track meet and he broke the tape in the 200 with a time of 21.53. He also he had a long jump of 21 feet in state indoor championships.
Shelton is just as fast at thinking on his feet as a deferential, and diplomatic, first-year player.
Dennard "would probably get me (in the 40)," Shelton said. "I'm not gonna juice myself up. I mean Trae Waynes is one of the fastest, too. It wouldn't be a close race, but I would try to keep my ground.
"They know they're faster, but I would like to be in the picture if we're running 40s. It would be interesting to see if I could run against them, but it would be a blowout."
Shelton's first career carry went for 8 yards and he was dropped for a 1-yard loss on his second. This is a newly evolving component of the Spartans' rushing attack that has always tried to spread defenses horizontally with available speed.
Is Shelton a runner who can receive, or a receiver who can run?
"I don't have a different role," he said. "In previous years they've run a lot of end-arounds with Keshawn Martin. As receivers, we all bring unique things to help the team out."
During his career, Martin rushed the ball 64 times for 540 yards, 8.4 yards per carry, three touchdowns and a long-gainer of 84 yards in addition to catching 127 passes for 1,714 yards, 10 touchdowns and a long of 91 yards.
That would be a good niche for Shelton, who'll be looking for his first career catch against the Penguins, to fill.
"Right now, I consider myself a wide receiver, but I'm going to do whatever the coaching staff needs me to do," Shelton said. "I'm a team person, and I want this team to do special things. I'll sacrifice to do whatever I have to do for this team."
GoG Notes & Quotes: Converted linebacker Riley Bullough continues to become more nuanced as a running back. He gained 36 yards on six carries against South Florida after producing 12 yards on five rushes in the opener against Western Michigan.
"It was a big difference, I think, just understanding the concepts of the offense and getting more comfortable back there," he said of his Game 2 performance. "As a whole, we ran the ball much better, so I think we all were more comfortable.
"I've got to run downhill, but not just with my head down, trying to bowl people over. I've got to run with my eyes up, see holes and see the cuts."
Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said MSU's rushing game improved with 171 yards against South Florida, but the passing attack is in need of fine-tuning with Connor Cook, Andrew Maxwell, Tyler O'Connor and now true freshman Damion Terry possibly making his debut against Youngstown State.
"Tempo is something we always talk about as an offense," Warner said. "We try to change it up a little bit. I thought our backs hit the holes fast last week, and we had some nice holes to hit. In the pass game, we'd like to get the ball out a little quicker."
Cook appears to have earned his second consecutive career start because, Warner said, "it's a situation where he's gonna create and move around. You saw last week he's capable of running the football a little bit. He's capable of extending plays and throwing the ball downfield after he moves in the pocket. That's what he has always done for us in games and practice situations."
Settling on a No. 1 quarterback who can put points on the scoreboard remains the offensive coaching staff's top priority.
"Concern would be the best word," Warner said. "We're not blind, we're not ignorant. We know we've got some issues we're trying to deal through. But we're not in a panic mode. We're trying to figure it out, with the idea of long-term, who's going to be at quarterback. It's an offensive problem.
"What's the solution to get us through this Big Ten season and ultimately to the Rose Bowl? We're trying to take our time and push through it, and at the same time win football games on the weekend, but also, we're going to look down the road."
The criterion to win a position battle at MSU is as simple as it is firmly established.
"Whoever's the most consistent at making plays and doing the right thing," said defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett. "That's the bottom line. That's how we figure it out, period. You're constantly being evaluated.
"If you're consistently making plays and doing the right thing, you're going to play."