Young Spartans backs separate themselves

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State's quarterback competition remains virtually deadlocked, but the Spartans are seeing some separation in the race to replace All-American running back Javon Ringer.

The team has several veteran options at running back -- senior A.J. Jimmerson and sophomores Ashton Leggett and Andre Anderson all have played -- but the coaching staff expects youth to be served this fall. Heralded true freshmen Larry Caper and Edwin Baker have been as advertised so far in camp, and redshirt freshman Caulton Ray is continuing his progression after a strong finish to spring ball.

Last year, Ringer was the Spartans offense, accounting for nearly 41 percent of the team's production. A committee system is likely this fall, but the top group seems to be taking shape.

"There's some players that have stepped out a little bit," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "The freshmen running backs have done a nice job. Caulton Ray has done a nice job. Those three guys right now have separated themselves a little bit, but things can change pretty quickly."

Both true freshmen feel ready to contribute immediately, and running backs coach Dan Enos calls Ray arguably the team's most improved player. After being slotted behind Ringer and several others last fall, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Ray came on strong during winter conditioning and impressed the coaches with his knowledge of the offense in spring ball.

Though the 220-pound Caper has a size edge over Ray and Baker, both of whom are closer to Ringer's frame, all three backs demonstrate their toughness in camp.

"We practice very hard and very physical," Enos said. "All of our backs have been given the ball a bunch in camp because it's been a priority for us to find out who the guys are going to be. Those three guys, in particular, they've hung onto the ball, they've ran hard and they've been put in some tough situations, where they needed to get a tough yard or two tough yards, and they've shown the ability to do that."

The three young backs all finished among the stat leaders from Friday's controlled scrimmage at Spartan Stadium. Caper led the way with 68 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, while Ray (37 yards) and Baker (32 yards) also contributed.

Readiness is the big question surrounding all three players, but Enos likes what he sees.

"One of the reasons we [scrimmaged] in the stadium against our [first-team] defense, we wanted to see how they would respond," Enos said. "And they loved every minute of it. They were all itching to get back in the game when we took them out. They all ran really hard. We think they're going to be ready."