Dec. 28, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
LOS ANGELES - To use a baseball analogy, when Jeremy Langford started going for singles instead of home runs, the hits started coming.
"I tried to score every play," Michigan State's record-setting tailback said during Saturday's Rose Bowl media session at The L.A. Hotel Downtown. "I wanted every play to be a touchdown."
It was only after studying the Spartan running backs that preceded him - Edwin Baker, Larry Caper and Le'Veon Bell in particular - did Langford become a self-described "workhorse" content with making contact until the opportunity to swing for the fences presents itself.
"Watching (Bell), I knew (it's OK) to get 4 yards here, and 3 yards here, and 5 yards here," Langford said. "What I got from Le'Veon is you have to work for the yards you get and eventually you're going to break one."
Langford is arguably MSU's most improbable star going into the Rose Bowl against Stanford.
His contributions to the offense during spring practice were so underwhelming, head coach Mark Dantonio moved red-shirt freshman linebacker Riley Bullough into the backfield. The Spartans' best hope in preseason camp was to get 100 rushing yards per game out of a tailback committee that also included backup Nick Hill.
Langford won the starting job before the opener against Western Michigan, and put up a respectable 90 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries. He was held to 68, or fewer, yards in the next four games, including 43 on 14 carries in the Big Ten opener at Iowa.
But then, all the effort he put in to get back in the coaching staff's good graces - including the 10 pounds of muscle and a commitment to be a tougher runner - kicked in with a 23-carry, 109-yard, three-touchdown performance against Indiana. He hasn't been held to less than 104 yards since, had a career-high 151 yards and three touchdowns in the win at Nebraska and he helped close Ohio State out with 128 yards and a touchdown in Big Ten Championship Game victory over Ohio State.
"I worked a lot harder (in the offseason) and we competed as a team in the summertime, like running the stadium stairs," Langford said. "I basically studied the running backs ahead of me. Something Le'Veon did well is he was very patient in the backfield, setting up blocks and letting the linemen do their job. That's also what I got from him and as the season went a long I got a lot better at."
Last season, Bell rushed for 1,793 yards, the second-most in school history behind Lorenzo White's 2,066 in 1985. But no Spartan ever rushed for 100 yards in eight consecutive games the way Langford has. With 1,338 yards, Langford is just 15 yards away from tying T.J. Duckett for 10th place on Michigan State's all-time single-season list.
Langford leads the Big Ten, and is tied for seventh in the nation, with 17 rushing touchdowns, putting him behind only Eric Allen (18 in 1971), Blake Ezor (19 in '89), Jehuu Caulcrick (21 in '07) and Javon Ringer (22 in '08) among Spartans.
Langford didn't take being challenged for playing time by a linebacker as an indignity; he used it as inspiration.
"At Michigan State there's a lot of competition," he said. "I think that pushes you more to work for opportunities because I knew it wasn't going to be given to me. I'm glad that situation happened. It made me a better player."
Although Langford has always had breakaway speed, co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner never envisioned him as a feature back.
"Riley Bullough was in the mix and obviously Jeremy didn't want that," Warner said. "To his credit, he wanted to be the guy. I'm not sure you'd say he was the guy then or going to be dynamic or get to where he is right now, but he was very consistent throughout camp. He wasn't making any mental mistakes. He was running the ball. He wasn't putting the ball on the ground.
"I think he was running hard and running low and getting tough yards and all that stuff. And then when he started breaking away a little bit, utilizing his speed, that's where he just flourished. It's hard to take Jeremy Langford off the field right now with the explosiveness and the possibility he has every time he touches the ball."
And now that Langford has stopped trying so hard to go the distance every time, something amazing has happened.
In the last five games, he has closed out Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern, Minnesota and Ohio State with blasts of 40, 37, 37, 44 (career-best) and 34 yards, respectively.
"I don't go into the game thinking about that, but I know when we're up in the fourth quarter with two or three minutes left, we want to hold the ball as long as we can to keep our defense off the field," Langford said. "When the coaches call my number back-to-back-to-back, it just works."