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Thursday, September 18, 2008
Ringer works overtime for Spartans

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

 
 AP Photo/Al Goldis
 Javon Ringer has emerged as the top back in the Big Ten.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If Dan Enos wasn't a reliable source, you wouldn't believe him.

How could Michigan State's Javon Ringer possibly ask to come out of a game?

Ringer is becoming the Kevin Bacon of running backs, doing it all at a feverish pace for the Spartans in the first three games this season. The 5-foot-9, 202-pound senior already has 104 carries, 25 more than any other FBS running back. He leads the nation in both rushing touchdowns (9) and scoring (18 ppg), ranks third in rushing (166 ypg) and fourth in all-purpose yards (327.7 ypg). Plus, he returns kickoffs for the Spartans, averaging 22.2 yards per return.

Notre Dame is the next team to get a heavy dose of Ringer on Saturday at Spartan Stadium (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

"He's truly a workhorse," Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis said.

Such a Herculean workload affords few respites, but Ringer sneaked one in last week against Florida Atlantic, a game in which he set career highs for carries (43) and rushing yards (282). After catching a screen pass in the fourth quarter that was nullified by a holding penalty, Ringer spotted Enos on the sideline.

"He looked over at me like, 'Coach, how bout this one?'" Enos said."He just kind of gave me that look. It was funny. So we got him out on that one. When he comes over, I'm like, 'Get some water. Catch your breath. Because you're not going to be standing here very long.'"

While backs on other Big Ten teams compete for carries, Ringer has the luxury -- or burden, depending on how you view it -- of knowing that he'll get the ball as much as he possibly can handle it. The Spartans have other runners available -- Andre Anderson, A.J. Jimmerson and Ashton Leggett, to name three -- but they don't hide their intention to feature Ringer.

"When you've got a guy with his ability," Enos said, "as many as times he's got the ball in his hands, we feel it makes us a better team."

The massive undertaking seems somewhat risky for a player who sat out most of spring ball following shoulder surgery, but Ringer isn't concerned about the physical toll. Though Michigan State doesn't shy away from contact during practices, Ringer is mostly off limits. "My defensive friends, they all know I'm going to take a pounding come Saturday anyway," he said.

His mental preparation for an enhanced role took more time.

For three seasons, Ringer shared time with Jehuu Caulcrick, a 255-pound bruiser usually summoned for short-yardage and goal-line situations. With Caulcrick gone, the simple math meant more carries were coming Ringer's way.

But how many more?

"Whether that's under 20, over 20, over 40, I just accepted the fact that I was going to get the ball a lot," Ringer said. "This year I did more mentally preparing myself, knowing, 'OK, I'm really going to be the main guy carrying the ball a lot.'"

He never expected 43 carries last week, but rainy conditions and Ringer's reliability kept him on the field.

During one stretch in the third quarter, Ringer had five consecutive carries to set up a Brett Swenson field goal. When Michigan State got the ball back minutes later, Ringer ran two more times.

"He had had no fumbles throughout the entire day and we didn't want to risk putting a new guy in there and having him handle the football in those conditions," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "He was so sure-handed. We just wanted to stay the course with it. ... I didn't count the carries, so it was a little surprising to me that he had that many at the end, but he did a great job, as usual."

Ringer ranked third in the league in rushing yards last season (1,447) but was somewhat overlooked by his lack of touchdowns (6). Caulcrick, meanwhile, was a fantasy football gold mine, scoring 21 touchdowns on 222 carries (that's a touchdown every 10.6 carries).

The Spartans' coaches never lacked confidence in Ringer for short-yardage situations, but as Enos explained, "When it's third-and-1 and there's a 250-pound back [Caulcrick] standing next to me on the sidelines, it's hard not to put him in there."

Ringer had no complaints, acknowledging that Caulcrick was ideal for those situations. But this season has provided him the chance to showcase all of his abilities.

"I didn't want to be known as just a one-style back, like a slasher or something like that," Ringer said. "I wanted to be able to mix it up and do both so nobody could really think I'm going to make them miss all the time. I like contact. I like to lower my shoulder a lot. A lot of my favorite runs are in-between tackles."

Eight of his nine scoring runs this season have been 11 yards or less. Two weeks ago against Eastern Michigan, Ringer had a career-high five touchdown runs, all from within six yards of the goal line.

"He's a 600 [pound] squat guy," Dantonio said. "He's very, very powerful, and then he's got the intangibles in terms of the vision or the toughness or the attention to detail."

Before this season, Ringer had only four career kickoff returns, all in 2006. But with superstar Devin Thomas gone and the coaches not shy about giving him the ball, the senior added another duty to his list.

"It surprised me," Ringer said of being put back deep alongside Otis Wiley. "The first thing that popped into my head was, 'Man, I've got to try to fill Devin's shoes.' That's the only thing I thought about. I just wanted to be half as good as Devin Thomas was."

The Big Ten knows exactly how good Ringer is this season. The senior has been named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week in consecutive weeks, and with Chris "Beanie" Wells sidelined and Wisconsin's P.J. Hill splitting carries, Ringer has emerged as the league's best back.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn't look forward to seeing No. 23 in three weeks.

"I know what I saw of him last year and it wasn't pretty on our end," Fitzgerald said. "He ran through us like we weren't even there. ... He catches the ball well, he protects well, he's got good vision, can make you miss when a guy's there unblocked. He's just a complete back from what I've seen.

"He's in my nightmares kind of the way [former Michigan running back Tim] Biakabutuka was when I was a player."

Dantonio struggled to find a strong comparison for Ringer among the other standout backs he's been around.

"Javon's got that extra gear," Dantonio said. "He may be as good as I've seen."