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Spartans backs try to fill Ringer's shoes

4/1/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There were times last fall when A.J. Jimmerson, Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett could only huddle on the sideline and shake their heads in amazement.

Michigan State kept giving the ball to Javon Ringer, and Ringer kept taking it, leaving his three understudies to watch and wait.

"After a while, you start thinking, 'This can't keep going on forever, not the whole season,'" Jimmserson said.

"You've always got that in the back of your mind, like, 'Alright, he just ran about 60 yards, maybe he'll come out,'" Leggett said. "But it never happened."

Ringer was college football's Ironman, carrying the ball 390 times, 23 more than any back in the country. The All-American and Doak Walker Award finalist had 20 or more rushing attempts in 11 of 13 games and had 32 or more carries in seven contests.

Given Ringer's production and consistency -- 1,637 rush yards, 22 touchdowns -- there was little reason to remove him from the field. So Michigan State didn't.

Opportunities were extremely scarce for Jimmerson, Anderson and Leggett, who combined for just 40 carries all season, less than Ringer's game totals against Florida Atlantic (43) and Indiana (44).

"It got a little frustrating, but then again, you've got to know your role," Leggett said. "Everybody's got to pay their dues. You've got to wait your turn sometimes."

The wait is over for the three backs, who are competing this spring to win the starting job vacated by Ringer. All three players are rotating with the first-team offense as Michigan State tries to replace the man who ranks second on the school's all-time rushing list and carries list behind Lorenzo White.

Michigan State's quarterback competition between Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol will draw most of the preseason buzz, but the battle of the backs should bring just as much drama, especially with prized recruits Edwin Baker and Larry Caper joining the mix this summer.

"It's a lot different this year," said Anderson, a sophomore who finished second on the team in carries (26) and rushing yards (97) last fall. "There's definitely more self-imposed pressure, and a lot of pressure from the coaches. They expect you to just be able to go out there and play football without thinking. It feels good when the coaches feel good putting you in certain situations, where last year maybe they weren't as comfortable.

"That's pressure you definitely want because they depend on you."

Ringer's reliability made him indispensable in games, and all three backups received a tutorial in what it takes to excel in the Big Ten.

Jimmerson, a fifth-year senior, lived with Ringer the last few years, while Anderson served as Ringer's running and lifting partner. Ringer also returned to East Lansing in recent weeks for Michigan State's pro day and provided some tips to his successors.

"It definitely helps a lot, him taking me under his wing like that," Anderson said. "I've spent a lot of time with him, just talking to him and asking him what he learned."

Added Leggett: "He's got a great work ethic. Every day he came to practice, he showed up. You just look up to a guy like that. You want to be like Javon."

The three backs bring slightly different styles to the Spartans backfield.

Anderson is undersized at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds but boasts top-end speed and breakaway ability. Leggett, a sophomore, is a load at 5-11 and 235 pounds and has been compared to former Michigan State back Jehuu Caulcrick. Jimmerson falls in between the two at 5-10 and 205, and hopes to blend power and speed into a starting role.

"It's a great feeling right now," Jimmerson said, "finally getting a chance that I've been waiting for. The job's wide open, basically."

Anderson made pass protection a greater focus during the offseason in an effort to become a more complete back. Ringer helped Michigan State rank in the top half of the Big Ten in sacks allowed last fall.

"When you come into college football, everybody can run the ball," he said. "That's what you get picked up for. The test of it is to see whether you can make those blocks and pick up those blitzes.

"It's what separates running backs in college and makes you start versus you being second string or third string."

All three backs are listed as possible starters on the spring depth chart, and the competition likely will spill over into preseason camp, when Baker and Caper arrive (head coach Mark Dantonio expects both to compete for the top job). But a chance for separation arrives Saturday as Michigan State holds its first contact scrimmage of the spring.

Leggett expects each contender to receive 15-20 carries with the first team.

"It's definitely a time to try to separate yourself," Anderson said. "I'm going to go in and treat it like it's a game."