LJ Scott returns, but depth at running back an issue for Michigan State
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — LJ Scott is back. Beyond that, Michigan State’s running game has plenty of questions.
Scott’s return for his senior season gave the Spartans some good news after they finished 2017 with a victory in the Holiday Bowl, but now he stands out even more in a backfield with little proven depth. Scott’s workload has been manageable through three years at Michigan State, but it remains to be seen if the Spartans will have anyone who can effectively spell him during the rigors of the Big Ten season.
Scott didn’t do anything too memorable in Saturday’s spring game, but Alante Thomas rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown, and Connor Heyward ran for 44 yards and a TD. Heyward is the son of Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, who played 11 seasons in the NFL. He says he and Scott have gotten plenty of work this spring.
“Obviously LJ, he’s played a lot in his career, so he didn’t really need all those reps, but I think it helped me tremendously,” Heyward said. “And it helped LJ, I think, too. I think it helped us get in shape a little bit more.”
Scott has led Michigan State in rushing in all three of his seasons with the Spartans, and a big senior campaign could move him into the top five on the school’s career list. He enters his final college season with 531 carries, but he’s never had more than 201 in a season.
So it’s not clear how he would handle a season like Le’Veon Bell had in 2012, when he carried the ball 382 times for the Spartans.
If Heyward or another running back can emerge, Michigan State won’t have to worry as much about overworking Scott. The Spartans have a couple incoming freshmen, Elijah Collins and La’Darius Jefferson, who may be able to help.
Scott’s fumbling problems early last season were a concern for Michigan State, but that didn’t prevent the Spartans from going 10-3, and the 6-foot-1, 226-pound running back ran for 110 yards in a win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
Scott’s decision to stay at Michigan State instead of turning pro was good news for the Spartans.
“It was a long decision during that process, but I’m glad to come back this extra year,” Scott said recently. “I get to get a lot more learning in and try to get better at my craft every day.”
Scott nearly pulled off one highlight in the spring game, when he went deep for a pass from wide receiver Cody White on a trick play, but the ball fell incomplete. Another trick play turned out better for the offense — when Heyward threw the ball back to quarterback Rocky Lombardi for a late 2-point conversion .
Heyward played quarterback, receiver, running back, safety and punter in high school. He had only three carries this past season, his first at Michigan State, but he contributed as a kick returner.
“He really can play a lot of positions for us,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “He does a lot of different things in the backfield for us. … Feel good about that position.”
Heyward’s versatility could give Michigan State some extra options, and even Scott showed a bit more as a receiver last season, catching a career-high 20 passes — so there are signs that those two could form an effective tandem in 2018.
“I think me and LJ both, and all our running backs, I think we’re all versatile enough, but we haven’t really, like, used it,” Heyward said. “I think this year we’ll be able to show that me and LJ are versatile — receiver in the slot, wherever we line up. Not just running the ball.”