Langford emerges as Spartans’ go-to tailback

Things have changed: Jeremy Langford had 23 yards rushing to his name after three seasons before a breakout 2013.

Andrew Weber

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tailbacks who rush for 1,422 yards in a college football season generally were highly recruited out of high school and leave for the NFL draft after their third year in college.

And then there’s Jeremy Langford.

Langford, rated the No. 73 running back in the country by Scout.com after accumulating 1,932 yards as a senior at Westland John Glenn, had 23 yards rushing to his name after three seasons as a Spartan. He was red-shirted in 2010, moved to cornerback as a red-shirt freshman and to wide receiver the next year before returning to tailback during the 2012 season. He played primarily on special teams both years.

His one-on-one talks with Spartans coach Mark Dantonio helped him through those years when he couldn’t find a niche, and now serve to reinforce his dedicated approach as a fifth-year senior.

"The best talk was this past summer because there wasn’t too much to say," said Langford. "I’ve been doing good in school and everything. I’ve been working on and off the field. The bad talks were when I was getting switched from defensive back 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. I’m glad he kept me here, and he talked to me. He never gave up on me."

Langford couldn’t even establish himself as the clear backup to Le’Veon Bell two years ago because Bell seldom came out of the backfield. He led all major college runners with 382 carries and accounted for 92 percent of the team’s rushing total with 1,792 yards.

So, coming into 2013, Langford was one of several running backs angling to become the No. 1 tailback. Nobody emerged during spring drills, though, and Dantonio decided to move linebacker Riley Bullough to tailback in hopes that he could become the answer.

Langford got the nod as starter, but was slow to find his roll. He had 311 yards after five games, averaging a modest 62.2 yards per game. His longest carry was for 18 yards.

I’m preparing like I am not the starter. It’s not like the job is mine.

Jeremy Langford

Then, against Indiana, Langford carried 23 times for 109 yards and three touchdowns.

"It was the Indiana game that did it for me," Langford said. "They trusted me and I had my first 100-yard game, my first long gain (32 yards for a key touchdown). So, it’s a game I will never forget."

It became an unforgettable Rose Bowl championship season for Langford, who had a string of eight consecutive 100-yard games including 151 at Nebraska and 150 at Northwestern in back-to-back weeks.

Langford has gone from competing with Bullough for the starting job to competing for perhaps the Heisman Trophy. NFL.com rated Langford No. 13 among Heisman candidates and No. 6 among college running backs.

What are Langford’s thoughts on how much more he could accomplish?

"It’s nice for fans and everyone else to talk about that," he said. "But I’m preparing like I am not the starter. It’s not like the job is mine. There’s always competition, and nobody is bigger than the program."

He not only competes with the other tailbacks — freshman Madre London, red-shirt freshman Gerald Holmes Jr., sophomore Delton Williams and fifth-year senior Nick Hill — but with the leader of the defense, Shilique Calhoun, who was the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2013.

"Me and Langford tangle a bit — we definitely have our individual wars," said Calhoun. "We fight like and we talk like brothers to one another. He is a back who will try to get through you. He’s got some legs."

Langford chuckled when his confrontations with Calhoun were mentioned.

"The intensity is definitely there," Langford said. "Me and Shilique get at it. He brings out the best in me and our offensive linemen. He makes me work harder."

So do the Big Ten’s returning running backs who rushed for more yards than he did last year — Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah (1,690 yards) and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (1,609).

"There are other running backs in the nation and the Big Ten that I compete against," Langford said. "That makes me push myself even harder.

"But 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."

The Spartans are ranked No. 8 for their highest pre-season Associated Press ranking since the defending national championship team came in at No. 3 in 1967.

However, rankings before the season begin aren’t always very good indicators. MSU was unranked at this time last year and ended up 13-1, while that team in ’67 finished 3-7.

"We’ve got a bull’s eye on our chests," Langford said. "So, you’ve got to play and work even harder. We are definitely more confident because we had a lot of success. But we’ve got to be better, and start faster than we did last year."

Once Connor Cook overtook senior Andrew Maxwell and took off as the quarterback and Langford established himself as the go-to back, the offense went from feeble to formidable.

Nobody could see any of that coming at this time last year, when Langford was about to emerge from the shadows and become a glowing endorsement for staying the course.