- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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Illinois State running backs Erik Smith and Ashton Leggett are certain when they step foot onto Ryan Field to face Northwestern on Saturday they won't become nostalgic and begin wondering what their careers could have been like if they had stayed in the Big Ten.
Smith, formerly of Wisconsin, and Leggett, formerly of Michigan State, have quickly moved on from their pasts. Yes, they were Big Ten running backs a year ago, but now they carry the ball for Illinois State, and they're more than fine with that.
"I'm especially happy where I am now," said Smith, a sophomore. "I don't really dwell on it. Everything happens for a reason. Me ending up here is one of the better decisions in my life.
"It's a family atmosphere here. My high school football coach said college football is not for everybody. If you're going to be somewhere, you have to love it. You're probably going to see your teammates and coaches more than anybody. If you don't like that, you're not going to be happy."
Smith decided to leave Wisconsin following last season after it appeared others would be before him on the depth chart. He ran for 69 yards and one touchdowns on 16 carries last year as a redshirt freshman.
Leggett's reason for transferring came under different circumstances. He left Michigan State last year after he pleaded guilty to two counts of assault and battery following a campus fight that involved a number of other teammates on Nov. 22, 2009. Leggett played in six games last season for the Spartans and had 125 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Leggett preferred not to talk much about what happened at Michigan State, but he did feel as if he had become a better person for it.
"I grew up," said Leggett, a junior. "I'll leave it at that. I grew up. I opened my eyes. I'm grateful that I went through that situation. I'm going to have to live with that the rest of my life, but I grew up and learned from it."
Both players decided on Illinois State as their new home because of second-year Redbirds coach Brock Spack. They were familiar with him from his Purdue days as the Boilermakers' defensive coordinator.
Neither player knew the other before arriving to Illinois State, but they became fast friends and even got an apartment together. Now the roommates sit around and watch the NFL Network together all day.
"We even quote it sometimes," Smith said. "Ashton is really cool, laid back. Football history-wise, he knows more than I do. We mesh well, and we feed off each other's energy, especially on the field.
"We're both very excited. We both showed up at the same time and want to help Illinois State become a dominant team and win a I-AA national championship."
Since they do watch so much of the NFL together, they realize the current trend is for teams to use a two-running back system.
"Nowadays, it's weird of you have one running back to have the load of carries," Leggett said. "We complement each other. He brings that speed and lighting to the ball, and I bring the power. We bring that Big Ten experience. We have that toughness down. We're destined to have a big year."
In the season-opener, Smith led the way with 96 yards on 13 carries, and Leggett ran for 56 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries.
Facing two former Big Ten running back is an unique challenge for Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who has been preparing his players for Smith and Leggett all week. They won't be overlooked.
"They're impressive looking from watching the first game," Hankwitz said. "They ran with speed. They ran with power. They ran north and south. We thought Vanderbilt had a couple good running backs. These guys are right on par with them, just based on the first game."
Even if Smith and Leggett have dropped down a division, they never lost that Big Ten confidence when they transferred. They still believe they can beat anyone, just as they did when they were at Wisconsin and Michigan State.
"We're looking to get the ‘W,'" Leggett said. "We should get the ‘W.'"