EAST LANSING, Mich. — Coming into the 2013-2014 season, it was uncertain how Michigan State’s rushing attack would recover from the departure of do-it-all running back Le’Veon Bell to the NFL.
Last year, Bell rushed 382 times — leading the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) — for 1,793 rushing yards during his final year as a Spartan — which was the second-highest single-season mark in MSU history and the fifth most in the nation in 2012 — and while Bell’s production was pivotal if the Spartans wanted to make their sixth consecutive bowl appearance, it left a cause for concern moving forward.
With an inexperienced backfield heading into training camp — five running backs with a combined 60 rushes for 186 yards and one touchdown in their careers — Michigan State head coach Mark Danotnio and staff were looking for someone — or multiple players — to step up at that position.
After weeks of speculation and uncertainty, it was junior tailback Jeremy Langford who emerged as the starter for Michigan State’s opening-season matchup vs. Western Michigan. The 6-foot-0, 206-pound running back from Wayne, Mich., had 20 carries for 94 yards and a touchdown in his first career start, but it was clear that he was wet behind the ears as he was very hesitant in his cuts and easily taken down at times.
Fast forward eight weeks later, and Langford has not only separated himself as the best rusher on the MSU offense, but he’s become the best player. Langford is finishing his runs with more emphasis and he’s more patient when it comes to his reads, something that wasn’t as prevalent early in the season.
“It’s like everything you do,” Langford said. “You get better as time goes on, and I think I’ve gotten better at that. My coaches have been telling me, I watch film more, and I think I’m getting a lot better at that from week to week. I just have to continue to get better.
“Running harder, breaking tackles and making somebody miss was the key part that I think I needed to work on. That’s what I’ve been working on in practice, and it’s been showing.”
And in recent weeks, that elusiveness has been the bright spot of the Spartans’ offense.
In the Spartans’ (6-1, 3-0) 42-28 victory over Indiana last week, Langford carried the ball 23 times for 109 yards (previous career highs) and a career-high three touchdowns. Today, in Michigan State’s 14-0 bowl-clinching victory over Purdue, Langford rushed a career-high 24 times for a career-high 131 yards, and carried a MSU offense that was having trouble moving the ball through the air.
“The last three weeks he’s certainly played very well for us,” Michigan State co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “He’s running strong, he’s running tough. He’s getting the extra yard for us, and obviously he didn’t have a lot of the big plays where he sort of breaks out in the clear, but he has done that and he’s been hot. There really wasn’t a whole lot of a decision to be made today. We were going to go with him and ride him.”
Langford had seven rushes for 10 or more yards in the victory — the longest being 18 yards — and many of those came from his ability to make defenders miss at the line of scrimmage and not go down after first contact, and that’s something he’s become to understand is important as he becomes more experienced as a Big Ten running back.
“At the beginning of the season I wasn’t really thinking about it,” Langford said. “But as the season goes on that’s something you have to do as a running back, break tackles, and that’s when I got that mentality.”
“I’ve come far from the beginning of week one. I was running hard, but now I know the game better and I feel like I’m growing as the weeks go on.”
However, it’s not only Langford and MSU coaches that have noticed the improvements and strides that he’s made when it comes to improving his elusiveness, his teammates –specifically sophomore quarterback Connor Cook — have noticed the improvements in his game as well.
“I think Jeremy is getting better each and every week,” Cook said. “You saw what he did against Iowa, you saw what he did against Notre Dame, and then Iowa, and Indiana. I think today he had another exceptional game. He runs hard, it takes more than one guy to tackle him and he’s got some pretty good moves that he can put on defenders.