Connor Cook is undoubtedly the face of the Michigan State offense, but was he its most important piece last season?
A strong argument can be made that as good as Cook was, it was running back Jeremy Langford who meant even more statistically to the 2014 Spartans — and the 2013 Spartans before them. Langford was a model of consistency at running back, a near lock to rush for 100 yards and hit the end zone at least once. Last season, he rushed for 1,522 yards and 22 touchdowns, firmly placing himself among the Big Ten’s stable of elite backs that included Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Ezekiel Elliott, Ameer Abdullah and David Cobb.
Langford was particularly reliable when it came to Big Ten games. In 17 conference games over the past two seasons, he rushed for at least 100 yards in all but one of them, and that includes an unbelievable streak of 16 in a row. He eclipsed the triple-digit mark in the final nine games of the 2013 season and the final 10 of the 2014 season. Langford rushed for multiple touchdowns in each of the last seven games of last season, scoring three touchdowns in four of those games, including the remarkable come-from-behind win over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
So how do you replace that kind of production? Taking 100 rush yards and multiple end-zone trips out of an offensive attack is a brutal blow, no matter how good your quarterback is. The Spartans averaged 500.8 yards of offense per game last season — a ridiculously good number, for sure — but it was split pretty evenly down the middle being passing yardage (265.6 per game) and rushing yardage (235.2). Cook should be able to lead a once-again excellent passing attack, but replacing those huge rushing numbers could be a real challenge for Michigan State.
Unsurprisingly, the Spartans are confident they can do it.
“We’re going to open up the holes and lead those guys, but at the same time, they’re great athletes. They just need repetition,” center Jack Allen said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “I think it’s kind of like a Jeremy Langford situation from two years ago. After Le’Veon Bell left, everyone was wondering who’s going to be the next guy to step up. And Jeremy didn’t have a great spring, but he got the repetition that he needed and he exploded the next season. So that’s what I think is going to happen.”
A fine comparison by Allen, bringing up Langford’s lack of experience when he took over the job, only to become a 100-yard machine not long into his tenure as the go-to ball-carrier.
But inexperience is again the keyword for this Michigan State running game.
Madre London was crowned the current No. 1 on the depth chart by Mark Dantonio earlier this week. London is a redshirt freshman, a former four-star recruit who was the No. 17 running back in the Class of 2014, per Rivals. He obviously has yet to register a collegiate carry, making him a true unknown.
Of the guys who do have carries, they don’t have too many. Delton Williams rejoined the Spartans a few days into this summer’s camp after dealing with legal issues this offseason, and he reportedly will be available for the season-opener. He had 54 carries a season ago for 316 yards, the Spartans’ third leading rusher. Sophomore Gerald Holmes got 15 carries for 44 yards last season. Nick Tompkins played cornerback last season. Walk-on Phillip-Michael Williams had four carries last season. True freshman LJ Scott is expected to redshirt.
So while this corps has the confidence of coaches and teammates, it is almost completely unknown how this group will fare in game action, especially if the freshman London is leaned on heavily as a featured back.
Replacing Langford could prove near-impossible for a team that has national-championship aspirations, putting a lot more on the shoulders of Cook. But, as Allen pointed out, Langford was a similar question mark when he took over. Now he’s a third-round NFL draft pick.