Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- There are several predictable words to describe the way a 235-pound man runs the football.
Smooth is usually not one of them.
"I tease him sometimes, because he's one of my closest friends," Michigan State wide receiver Mark Dell said. "He's real smooth, kind of effortless. I love to see him run. He's a smooth running back."
Perhaps Dell is confusing sophomore Ashton Leggett with one of the other Michigan State running backs immersed in a competition to replace All-American Javon Ringer. At 5-foot-11 and 235 pounds, Leggett has drawn comparisons to former Spartans back Jehuu Caulcrick, a boulder in the backfield who scored 21 touchdowns in 2007.
Terms like powerful, downhill and punishing would seem more appropriate for a player like Leggett.
But Dell's claim is backed up by a pretty good source.
"Ashton is the smoothest running back out of all of us, even when I was here," said Ringer, who watched Michigan State's practice on Tuesday and even helped the running backs during individual drills. "A lot of people say he resembles Jehuu a lot, but no. He's a completely different runner than Jehuu was.
"The way Ashton's footwork is, he's one of the smoothest runners."
Former NBA player Sam Perkins owns the rights to the "Big Smooth" nickname, but Leggett might need to borrow it this fall for Michigan State. Though the competition at running back remains extremely tight this spring, Leggett inched ahead last week before being slowed for a few days by a sprained knee.
Head coach Mark Dantonio likes Leggett's ability to break tackles and move laterally and singled out the sophomore for his play. But Leggett doesn't get wrapped up in the spring separation buzz.
"As soon as you perceive that, you drop to fourth on the depth chart," he said. "I just come in here, ready to work hard every day and hope I stay ahead. ... I see us as four, three guys all on one line and any given day, any one of us can break right through and take one 80, 90 yards. So we're pretty much all there still."
Leggett is competing with senior A.J. Jimmerson, sophomore Andre Anderson and redshirt freshman Caulton Ray. Two heralded incoming freshmen, Edwin Baker and Larry Caper, also will be in the mix during preseason camp.
Jimmerson has by far the most experience in the group, but his carries have dropped from 37 in 2007 to only eight last fall.
While Jimmerson brings a good blend of speed and size, Anderson most resembles Ringer. He's a bit undersized at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds but boasts excellent quickness and runs hard. Ray fits a similar mold at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds.
Though Leggett clearly boasts a size edge, he's not your typical big back. Asked what area he needed to improve most during spring ball, Leggett's answer came as a bit of a surprise.
"Definitely pass protection," he said. "Last year, my head was running wild, not knowing who to block, everybody coming from different angles. But this year, keeping my head in the playbook, I feel like my pass protection is improving."
Should pass protection be a cinch for a 235-pound back?
"They would look at [me] and say it's easy," Leggett said, "but on any given play we could have four different people to pick up."
Running the ball, meanwhile, comes naturally for Leggett, a Muskegon, Mich., native who had only six carries for 17 yards with a touchdown and a fumble lost last season. Ringer led the nation with 390 carries, limiting the chances for Leggett or the other reserves to get in the game.
Though his body type would suggest a back who can take a good deal of pounding, Leggett expects the carries to be spread out this fall.
"I won't have the stress on my body like Javon," he said. "I thank God for that."
A few feet away, a smiling Ringer watched intently as Leggett spoke with reporters. The future NFL draft pick likes what he's seeing from the backs this spring.
"Things are going to sort themselves out, but I kind of already have an idea [on who will start], I have my own opinion," Ringer said. "I like what I'm seeing from all of them. They're going to be good."