Better running game could boost Spartans

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- A funny thing happened to Michigan State on the way to Indianapolis last year.

The Spartans finished 11th in the Big Ten in rushing yet came within a running-into-the-punter penalty of potentially going to the Rose Bowl. Teams aren't supposed to win big in the Big Ten without a powerful running attack.

But Michigan State did things a different way last season, relying on a seasoned quarterback (Kirk Cousins) and two senior receivers (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin) to make up for a subpar ground game. Mark Dantonio's team doesn't have the luxury of experience in the passing game in 2012, but the Spartans could lean on a more effective running game this season.

"I definitely feel like that will happen," lead tailback Le'Veon Bell said.

That's more than just the usual spring optimism. The Spartans struggled to produce rushing yards early last season in large part because of an inexperienced offensive line that was plagued by injuries. It was easier to get that group to pass block for a few seconds, which was all the time Cousins needed to unload the ball.

Those early 2011 troubles, though, have led to an advantageous 2012 situation for the offensive line. Six players who started games last year are back and healthy this spring, allowing the unit to concentrate more on run blocking.

"We want to show everyone that we can run the ball and be a great O-line, one of best in the Big Ten," senior guard Chris McDonald said. "So we're trying to focus on that and put it on our shoulders. If we can do that, our running backs can do great things."

Michigan State has runners who are capable of greatness. Even with Edwin Baker unexpectedly leaving early for the NFL, the backfield is in good hands with Bell, senior Larry Caper and sophomore spark plug Nick Hill. Bell's potential in particular gives reason for excitement.

He got off to a strong start as a freshman before fading down the stretch and reversed that curve as a sophomore. Bell took over as the Spartans' primary back late last season, running for at least 86 yards in five of the last eight games, including a 106-yard effort against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. He led the team with 948 yards on the season.

Baker's departure cleared the way for Bell to be the unquestioned starter this spring, but Dantonio raised eyebrows earlier this month with comments about "complacency" when asked about his junior running back. Dantonio told ESPN.com that his remarks were misinterpreted, but they sure made their way to Bell's ears no matter the intent.

"I definitely took that as motivation," Bell said Thursday. "Coach D doesn't really direct his words toward anyone, but he makes sure people know they don't have a starting job locked up. I don't want to be complacent, and I see myself as a leader of the running backs."

By all accounts, Bell has turned up his play in recent days. Teammates were buzzing about his performance in Thursday's practice, in which they said he ripped off several long runs.

"Le'Veon is juking people out of their shoes and jumping over people," tackle Dan France said. "It's pretty impressive to watch."

His moves are especially impressive given his size. Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said the 6-foot-2 Bell is up to 242 pounds this spring, though Bell said that measurement came "after a big dinner." He plans to play more in the 235-pound range. Still, that is a load to bring down in the open field.

"I don't know how he does it, to be that big and move like that," safety Isaiah Lewis said. "He's just gifted."

Roushar said Michigan State will have the capability of putting both Bell and Caper, a 211-pounder who was one of the team's top rushers in 2009, in the backfield together at the same time. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound Hill can offer a change of pace with his quickness.

"We've got to get our tailbacks touches this season," Dantonio said.

And if so, the Spartans should finish higher than 11th in the league in rushing.