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Spartans' Baker back in starting blocks

Michigan State running back Edwin Baker isn't the type of player who needs a depth chart to motivate him.

But it can't hurt.

Coach Mark Dantonio's depth chart entering spring practice included four positions with multiple players listed as possible starters. Some of the logjams could be expected, like at center, where the Spartans lose John Stipek, and at receiver, where the team loses Mark Dell. The chart also listed players with limited experience or production in 2010 as solo starters (defensive end William Gholston, safety Jairus Jones, punter Mike Sadler).

At running back, three players are listed as potential starters: Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. Baker is coming off of a season where he started 12 of 13 games, finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,201 yards and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media.

"I'm fine with it," Baker told me recently. "The coaches know best. They're going to put the right person at the right time in any game situation, so whatever they put out, it's for the best of the team."

Baker, the Big Ten's top returning rusher at running back, looks at the depth chart as another reminder that he can't take his position for granted.

"Playing running back, there's always someone trying to take your spot," he said. "Larry, he's my roommate and he's been second to me. Knowing that he's right there on my heels, any little mistake that I do, he can take my spot."

Caper looked like Michigan State's top back of the future in 2009 as he led the team in carries (120), rushing yards (468) and rushing touchdowns (six) as a true freshman. Baker, meanwhile, got off to a slow start because of injury.

The roles reversed in 2010 as Baker emerged and Caper missed time early in the season with a hand injury. Bell, meanwhile, surged with 549 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the first six games before his production slowed in the second half (56 rush yards in the final seven games).

"He made some runs against Notre Dame that were like, 'Wow,' very impressive for a true freshman," quarterback Kirk Cousins said of Bell. "And he, like a lot of true freshman, kind of ran out of gas. You've got to make sure he's getting his carries and touches, you can't write him off. And Larry Caper had a great freshman year. The biggest thing is to not let any of those three guys feel like they're playing second fiddle and taking a backseat.

"I think the coaches are trying to say, 'Hey, all three of you guys are top-notch players and we're going to rely on all three of you if we want to go somewhere.' While Edwin obviously had the most outstanding season last year, you've got to believe and encourage all three of them."

Baker gained a bit of weight in the offseason -- he's 208 pounds "on a good day" -- and hopes to have greater durability this fall. New offensive coordinator Dan Roushar has made no secret of his desire to run the ball more, and Baker is ready to be a big part of the game plan.

"He wants to get back to the old style of Michigan State football," Baker said of Roushar. "Michigan State was always known to run the football, pound green pound. That's what we plan on doing this season."

Cousins knows Baker isn't the type of player to think he has arrived.

"Edwin's a guy who's going to be motivated," Cousins said. "The minute he accomplishes something, he'll look to the next thing. He's going to keep looking to the next mountain to climb and be I think one of the best running backs to ever play here."