Elijah Collins stuck with Michigan State and earns more opportunities

EAST LANSING — Elijah Collins took over and found an opening down the left side of the line.

The end zone was in sight for the Michigan State running back, but Maryland’s Dante Trader Jr. had an angle on the tackle. So Collins cut inside and past Trader, then split another pair of defenders and crossed the goal line for a 12-yard touchdown run.

“It was really good,” Collins said. “Just to be back there to help my team do whatever we can to get the job done.”

It was an impressive run for Collins in last week’s 27-13 loss at Maryland. It was also reminiscent of what he showed in a first season in the red shirt. That was three years ago and it’s been even longer.

Since a stellar 2019 season, Collins has suffered a setback with COVID-19 in 2020 and a leg injury that limited him to eight games last year. Coach Mel Tucker has also completed four running back transfers over the past two seasons.

At a time when players are flocking to the portal because they are unhappy with their role, Collins has stood up to Michigan State.

“For me, the transfer wasn’t really something I thought about,” the fifth-year senior said. “I had a great opportunity here. Coach Tucker was allowing me to stay here and play ball. Why should I transfer? I didn’t feel like I was left out or out of the game. I always felt I had a chance and a chance and he always gave me that chance. I did everything I could to maximize that.

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Collins was a beacon of hope on a dismal Saturday at College Park as the Spartans (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) lost their third straight game. He had five carries for a team-best 36 yards and their only rushing score of the game.

“The production you see in the game from him is what we see in practice,” Tucker said. “He’s been consistent and he’s improved. He deserved the opportunities to come into the game and when he left he did well. He’s got a really good attitude, he works really hard, he’s a great teammate and he does a great job on special teams, so he’s very selfless and he’s hungry. I think that’s why he’s been productive in the role he’s had so far.

The role Collins played last week as second running back in the game for the Spartans came as a surprise. At the start of the season, he looked to be third on the depth chart at best, but took advantage of limited opportunities with 14 carries for 94 yards and three touchdowns in what could be an emerging role.

“I love seeing him because we’ve all seen him play at the highest level,” wide receiver Jayden Reed said of Collins. “We all know he’s a great ball player. All it takes is an opportunity.

Collins’ first real shot came in 2019 as a redshirt rookie who was behind starter Connor Heyward on the depth chart. That changed quickly when Collins rushed for 192 yards on 17 carries in a Week 2 win over Western Michigan. He took over the starting role and finished the season with 988 yards and five touchdowns.

After coach Mark Dantonio retired and Tucker took over the program, amid all the chaos of the pandemic, one of the few things that seemed certain at the start of the 2020 season was that Collins would be the best. team running back. But he struggled physically after a battle with COVID-19, looked nothing like himself and finished the shortened season with just 41 carries for 90 yards.

At last year’s fall camp, Collins said he felt like he used to and was ready to prove it. One problem: Kenneth Walker III. The transfer from Wake Forest became a star rushing for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns and winning the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back before leaving for the NFL. Despite having a diminished role, Collins was highly supportive of Walter Camp Player of the Year.

“It was crazy to watch,” Collins said of Walker. “To be right next to him and see him do all of this, I can’t help but be happy for the dude.”

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Collins also suffered another setback last year. He looked impressive in a series against Youngstown State in Game 2 of the season, but injured his leg crossing the goal line on a 20-yard touchdown catch. It sidelined him for five games, and he finished the season with just 18 carries for 102 yards.

With Walker departed for the NFL, Tucker added a pair of trade running backs in the offseason for the second year in a row. Jalen Berger from Wisconsin joined the program in January and Jarek Broussard from Colorado joined in May.

Although the room was once again crowded with additional competition, Collins did not go shopping for a new school. He cited examples of hard work set by his parents planning for a large family for his decision to stay in East Lansing.

“Every day I see them waking up and going to work,” Collins said. “That’s kind of how I see myself. If anything, wake up and go to work and get the job done.

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Collins also believes in Tucker. Although the Spartans got off to a rocky start after an 11-win season last year, the running back wanted to stay with a coach who hadn’t even signed him from East Lansing.

“Coach Tucker has done a lot of great things for this program,” Collins said. “He built this program brick by brick. It’s going to take time, it’s a process, it’s not going to happen overnight. I saw what he was doing, I knew he had a good plan and I wanted to be part of it. I did anything to be part of it.

Berger and Broussard were clearly Michigan State’s two best running backs in the first two games and the outlook was good averaging 228.5 yards per game rushing. The Spartans haven’t been effective since, averaging just 60 rushing yards per game during the three-game skid.

With Berger and Broussard combining to average just 2.9 yards per carry over the past three games, Collins has gotten more attention. He had a 1-yard touchdown run in a loss to Washington on his only run, but no runs the following week against Minnesota. Collins averaged 7.2 yards per carry against Maryland but had just two touches in the second half as the offense spat while being ruled out in the final 60 minutes.

Michigan State needs more production from its running game, especially if it’s going to break a losing streak. And the Spartans head into their toughest game of the season so far when they host No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday.

“He’s practiced well and his attitude and his drive and everything has been really good,” offensive line coach and running game coordinator Chris Kapilovic said of Collins. “(The running backs) Coach (Effrem) Reed talked about needing to get him in more and he got in there and I thought he was running really well. Ran hard, got yards added, fought for extra yards, missed some people, broke tackles. In my opinion, if he keeps training like this, playing like this, he needs to get more carries.

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Collins, who also plays a role on special teams and had two tackles last week, said he’s more mature and has a better understanding of the game than he did in the 2019 season. He feels he’s a carrier of balloon more complete now than at the time.

“Certainly because not only did I sharpen my tools on the court but also off the court,” Collins said. “That’s probably one of the most important things, being able to really slow down the game and mentally prepare and know what you’re doing there versus being a freshman and just being there- Literally, that’s how it felt sometimes. You know the game and you know the plays you need to run, but things are moving so fast and you’d kind of be right there.

This could be the start of a renaissance for Collins or it could just be a temporary increase in playing time. Either way, in a season that didn’t go to plan for the Spartans, a player who has stayed true to his program is an example of perseverance.

“I appreciate everyone in the Spartan Nation who has always stood by me,” Collins said, “because I have done nothing but support them. I feel that love.

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