Dantonio running his backs in phases
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Dantonio running his backs in phases

Three backups carry the load while awaiting Scott's return from injury

Photo: LaDarius Jefferson

EAST LANSING - Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio breaks each season into phases. Camp prepares his team for the first four games and if the Spartans can win their October dates that sets up playing for the Big Ten title in November.

It’s a good design for a measuring stick.

But for the Spartans to open October next week against Northwestern with a 3-1 overall record and 1-0 Big Ten mark, Dantonio was forced to send his young running backs onto the field in phases. They’re trying to get by without senior starter L.J. Scott, who suffered an ankle injury in the second game against Arizona State.

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This week sophomore Connor Heyward, true freshman LaDarius Jefferson and redshirt freshman Weston Bridges all had their moments helping the Spartans beat Central Michigan 31-20 on Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

“I thought all three of our tailbacks did a nice job,” Dantonio said. “It was good to see. (True freshman) Elijah Collins could have gotten in there too. He has a talent level as well.”

Heyward, making his second start, finished with 15 carries for 48 yards and a touchdown on a 2-yard run to finish an eight-play, 58-yard drive for a 24-3 lead with 10:24 left in the third quarter.

“Of course we want L.J. out there, but all of us are ready,” Heyward said. “It doesn’t matter how many carries we’re getting. We all prepare like were the No. 1 guy.”

Jefferson, a former state championship quarterback at Muskegon, ran 13 times for 56 yards and a touchdown with a long gain of 15. The 6-foot-1, 223-pounder scored on a 2-yard run to finish an eight-play, 44-yard possession for a 31-3 lead with 4:18 remaining in the third.

“La'Darius is a big back,” Dantonio said. “He's only played tailback for a couple months. He's been a quarterback for all his life, and has been a very successful quarterback running the football.

“He has good vision, keeps his shoulders square, and has a low center of gravity for a big guy. He's almost 230 pounds and he's a very positive guy. I think conceptually because he was a quarterback he understands things. He's not afraid to compete.”

Bridges, carrying the ball for the first time after suffering knee injuries his senior year in high school and last fall as a true freshman, gained 18 yards on six carries. That’s only a 3.0 average, but on a third-quarter series he ran the ball three straight times for gains of 9, 4 and 4 yards, showing quickness and vision to find daylight.

On the first and third carries he appeared a step away from turning the right corner, and his teammates noticed.

“Bridges is a very fast guy and he wants to get to the edge,” said quarterback Brian Lewerke.“He’s one of the faster guys on our team. He’s able to do that.”

However, there is the matter of Bridges (5-11, 195) fumbling the ball out of bounds on the third of those three straight flashes. A ball control error can end a young running back’s day, but he saw the field for two more carries in the fourth quarter.

His final step to turning the corner and running vertically may be a matter of regaining his feel or his confidence. Either way he’s gaining experience.

As Heyward (6-0, 229) learned last year playing as a true freshman, there is no substitute for college game experience.

“Practice reps are not the same as a game,” he said. “It’s not live. In practice, you’re going against the same defense, although they do switch around a little to experiment. But when you’re playing each week against a new team, you need to lock into your assignment. I think this is helping them to get stronger.”

If Jefferson is ahead of the game in the high school to college freshman transition, he credits the Spartans’ nationally ranked run defense.

“Ah, man, they tried to take my head off when I first got here,” he said. “They want you to get used to Spartan football. They get you prepared for what you’re going to meet later on down the line.

“It has made me better running against (defensive tackles) Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk and learning how to pass block against our guys.”

The running game still has to improve for the remainder of the Big Ten schedule. The three backs combined only averaged 3.3 yards per carry against Central Michigan (34-112). But Spartans coaches feel Heyward, Jefferson and Bridges showed progress while awaiting Scott’s return.

“I don't think that there is anything different that we game plan or call without L.J. in the game,” said co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner. “As far as LJ, he is a day to day deal and we want to get him back as soon as we can. We feel good about our depth at running back and some of those guys I think stepped up today.

“I think the offensive line has a big part in that. I think they gave us some opportunities today while at the same time I think we did a good job when there were creases of getting vertical and running with power.”

And the quest to solidify all three phases continues

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and Chargers.com. He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer, MLB.com, Rivals.com and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."