EAST LANSING - Michigan State running backs averaged 3.2 yards per carry last Friday during the first of three scrimmage opportunities for the Spartan football team this spring
That number is 1.3 yards per carry less than the Spartans averaged last season. But it is no reason for concern.
"The first (scrimmage) of spring all over the country there are little disadvantages," explained second-year Spartan running backs coach Brad Salem, "just because of timing and understanding how fast things happen. We have thrown a lot at them, which is good. We are seeing which things stick. But it is guys playing through. We have some guys at new positions whether it is O-line, fullback, or tight ends. But they have to see it and be a part of it live."
All-Big Ten tailback Edwin Baker and talented sophomore Le'Veon Bell combined for 50 yards in the scrimmage. Baker and Bell scored one touchdown apiece during work in the red zone. Red-shirt freshman Nick Hill had eight carries for 36 yards and classmate Jeremy Langford had seven carries for 25 yards. Junior Larry Caper did not take part in the scrimmage because of a minor injury. The former Battle Creek Central star will play in this Saturday's scrimmage.
"As a group they ran hard," said Salem. "I think they are seeing stuff a little bit quicker and that comes with guys playing and you've got guys with game experience. We will get Larry back here and the fullbacks are starting to show up."
After rushing for 1,201 yards and 13 touchdowns as sophomore, Baker hopes to rush for 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior. Salem first heard about Baker's goals on Tuesday. The Spartan assistant coach is pleased that Baker has set the bar as high as he has for himself. Salem is even more pleased with the way Baker has begun to mature as a football player.
"That is a lot of yards," laughed Salem. "I am okay with that. It is neat maturity-wise. In that first scrimmage it is always tough. He has matured from last year, where he might have let frustration set in. He knows it. Hang in there be patient and your play will come."
Baker is as talented and productive as any returning tailback in the Big Ten. But even he is getting pushed in practice.
"Edwin doesn't like having anything handed to him, and it is not," explained Salem. "He knows that we have very capable running backs. He maybe had a little bit more productivity than the others last season, but the nice thing is that we have more than one running back."
Baker, Bell, Caper, Hill, and Langford give Michigan State the best collection of running back talent of the Dantonio era.
"We have guys we can win football games with," Salem said. "The neat thing is that they are competitive and it is hard to be in that position but those guys compete every day and they understand the purpose of team and the purpose of family and they have done a nice job playing together and really pushing each other and trying to make each other better. That is really the neat thing that you saw in practice as you watched us today."
The emergence of Todd Anderson at fullback should give the ground game added bite. But the 6-foot-2, 253-pound Anderson isn't the only fullback playing well this spring.
"We really have four guys that have been really physical," said Salem, "with (Anderson), Niko (Palazetti), Adam (Setterbo) and Fred Smith."
Moving Anderson to fullback permanently this spring after experimenting with the switch during December bowl practice appears to have been a smart decision for the Spartans. At 6-foot-2, the 253-pound converted defensive end will be the biggest fullback Michigan State has had during the five years Dantonio has been coach of the Spartans.
"You kind of like that in him," answered Salem when asked if Anderson was the traditionally sized Big Ten fullback that can punish linebackers. "We ran power with some success, stopping penetration. We have done a nice job of being powerful at the point of attack with the fullback position. Todd has done a nice job with his physicality. He has good size. He is about 250. We can get back to the Pound Green Pound mentality."
Strong play at the fullback position is vital in Michigan State's offense.
"In our offense you need a fullback, whether it is a fullback or a tight end to establish the run," explained Salem. "It is our style, it is what we do so it is an important position. Nick Bendzuck did a great job last season as our fullback and then we got into some two tight end. We have to play to our strength, where are our people. You want to get the best 11 on the field too."
NOTES AND QUOTES
A niche for Nick: Michigan State found a way to make Nick Hill part of the 2010 recruiting class because they felt like the former Chelsea (Mich.) star was a home-run hitting tailback that was too talented to pass up. The Spartans will look for ways to get Hill on the field this fall.
"He has very good ball skills out of the backfield and is very good at catching kicks and punts and those things," Salem said. "But he will get his opportunities. It is neat that we have another guy to the throw in the mix and keep rolling but it is neat to see him emerge here."
Video by Gillian Van Stratt
More two tailback sets in 2011: Two years ago Michigan State struggled to run the football effectively for most of season. The Spartans did, however, find a certain measure of success on the ground during their road win over Illinois. During that game, Michigan State used two tailbacks in the same backfield frequently.
"That is part of our scheme and we did a little bit of it last year," explained Salem. "Again, how do you get the best players on the field. You can motion guys out or whatever you do. It is just getting those types of bodies on the field and you experiment with it in the spring."
Michigan State also used two tailbacks in the same backfield at Purdue in 2009 and at Penn State last November.
"We dabbled with it a little bit last year at Penn State we did it a little bit at the end of the season," Salem said.
Movement from that position out of the backfield. They are capable, very smart football players that can be in different positions."
Second-year charm: Salem is still adjusting to the additional demands of being the recruiting coordinator at Michigan State, but the second-year Spartan assistant feels right at home coaching the running backs.
"There is a comfort just being here a year and understanding the offensive verbiage, understanding the dynamics and personalities a little bit, knowing their names," said Salem. "It has been enjoyable to be here a duration of time and it makes it easier to do the second time around."