Rotation helps keep Michigan State's running backs hungry

There might be a tinge of jealousy among the Michigan State running backs when they look through Derrick Henry’s resume at Alabama this season. But it’s not the Heisman Trophy or the SEC rushing record or even the touchdowns they covet.

It’s all those touches.

Henry led the nation in carries (339) this season and averaged 45 per game in his last two outings. Despite a similar offensive philosophy, the busiest day for a Spartans running back this year wasn’t half of Henry’s recent average. Sophomore Gerald Holmes and L.J. Scott both had games with 22 carries late in the season. Those were the only two times that a back had his number called at least 20 times.

“That must be nice,” Holmes said when asked Monday morning about Henry’s workload. “That’s what tailbacks want. You want to be fed the ball.”

Michigan State has a lot of mouths to feed in its backfield with Scott and Holmes coming on strong in the second half of the season and redshirt freshman Madre London, who started the first six games, returning to full strength in recent weeks. It’s safe to assume all three will get at least a crack at trying to find a pass through the Crimson Tide’s mountain range of massive defensive linemen that set the pace for the nation’s top rushing defense when the teams meet on New Year's Even in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

Rather than turning one of them into the centerpiece of a strong rushing attack, the Spartan coaching staff has stuck with its plan to rotate the backs throughout the game to try to find the guy with a “hot hand.”

Each has started to develop his own style and in some cases his own role, but they all say that no one in the Michigan State huddle has figured out a pattern of who is playing when. The randomness is partly to keep their legs fresh, partly to keep opponents guessing and perhaps partly as a way to keep them competing against each other with every opportunity. Although, the coaching staff isn’t going to cop to the last factor.

“I guess I’d say when we get that figured out I’ll let you know,” co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. “There are some situations you can get into what kind of plays you’re running. Sometimes this guy is going to operate a certain play a bit better or this one might be a better pass blocker. In the midst of that, though, you’re also trying not to get into a situation where you’re giving things away by who’s in the game.”

Dave Warner, Bollman’s counterpart and running backs coach, said after 13 games certain niches have developed even if all three guys can jump in at any point.

Holmes’ ability to keep his legs churning has made him a punishing runner who is good in short-yardage situations. London worked hard on his speed this offseason and is probably the group’s best breakaway threat. Scott, a true freshman, has become something of a cleanup hitter based on how often he’s on the field near the goal line and in crucial situations.

Scott said he was a finisher in high school (in fact, he stretched across the goal line for a game-winning, walk-off touchdown against his rival school as a senior much the same way he did at the end of Michigan State’s 22-play game-winning drive at Iowa), but he was a little surprised to climb into that role so quickly with the Spartans.

“It’s definitely something I did in high school,” he said. “My coach was all about that. I was all about it. I was always asking for it. Obviously as you get to college, a bigger stage than high school, a lot of things change, but I was asking for it again.”

That might be as good an explanation as any for why Scott has been the most common crunch-time option in the running game this season. The rookie said he has a habit of sticking by graduate assistant Colby Kratch – the gatekeeper who relays Warner’s personnel decisions to the team on the sideline during games – and regularly bugging him about getting on the field. London and Holmes said they’re not quite as persistent on the sideline.

While they might turn a little greener when looking at Henry’s stats, the Spartan backs say they haven’t had an envy issues with their own group. London was the first to build up Scott’s confidence in a timeout during the touchdown drive in the Big Ten championship. He said splitting carries doesn’t drive them apart. It just drives them harder.

“When you get in you’ve got to make a play,” he said. “One of us is going to make a play, and that’s going to be the hot guy and he’s going to keep rolling.”

None of the backs knows who will be starting Thursday night at AT&T Stadium, and they probably won’t until the offense is ready to take the field for the first time. All three will get their chances, and the Spartans are counting on at least one of them to find some space against a generally air-tight Alabama defense.