NCF Nation: Javon Ringer

Iowa running back Mark Weisman has been a very busy man.

Last Saturday, he carried the ball 35 times in Iowa's 27-21 win against Iowa State. According to the school, only five Hawkeyes ball-carriers have heard their number called more often in a game. Weisman's workload came a week after he logged 30 carries, then a career high, in a win against Missouri State.

Just three games into the season, Weisman has 85 carries, 10 more than any other FBS player (Boston College's Andre Williams has 75) and 21 more than any Big Ten back (Ohio State's Jordan Hall has 64). If Weisman continues this pace, he'll finish the regular season with 340 carries, which would break Sedrick Shaw's team record of 316, set in 1995.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
David Purdy/Getty ImagesMark Weisman made 35 carries against Iowa State. Workhorse running backs are still typical throughout the Big Ten.
If Iowa reaches a bowl game, that number goes up to 368.

Take that, AIRBHG!

"John McKay's quote comes to mind, 'The ball's not that heavy,'" Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, referring to the former USC and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach.

Weisman's workload might be unique in most leagues, but not the Big Ten. A Big Ten back -- Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell -- led the nation in carries last season with 382, and another, Wisconsin's Montee Ball, was third with 356. Ball and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead both ranked in the top 10 nationally in carries in 2011.

The Big Ten has had at least one player rank in the top 10 in carries in eight of the past nine seasons. Michigan State's Javon Ringer led the nation with 390 totes in 2008, and Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun topped the chart with 348 in 2005.

The league's continued emphasis on the run game and power football contributes to the trend. You see more big, burly ball-carriers in the Big Ten than other leagues.

Bell, who played last season at about 240 pounds, certainly fits the description. The 6-foot, 236-pound Weisman came to Iowa as a fullback and has the frame to take a pounding.

"It takes a special guy to run the ball 390 times, like Le'Veon did," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "You can do it game to game 25 times, but that guy's got to get hot. They're plenty durable enough to do that."

Ferentz has had several bell-cow backs at Iowa, including Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, who ranked fifth nationally with 307 carries in 2008.

"It's not easy for anybody who's playing a lot of plays," Ferentz said. "They've really got to take care of themselves and they've got to be mentally tough, too, because anybody who's playing college football, most of them are sore by now."

Ferentz credits Weisman for staying in "phenomenal shape," but he also doesn't want to overwork the junior.

"It's really important that we utilize the whole group and really bring them along," Ferentz said, "so Mark can be at his best the whole season."

Michigan State's Nick Hill has dealt with the labels for years.

Too small. Scat back. Not every-down material. The fact he's trying to replace one of the biggest, baddest and most productive backs in the country, Le'Veon Bell, certainly doesn't make the size questions go away.

"I've been hearing that for a long time," Hill told ESPN.com earlier this week. "I think that's making me a better player, people saying that me being small, I might not be an every-down back. I look at it as a challenge."

[+] EnlargeNick Hill
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State running back Nick Hill hopes to see his role on offense expand in 2013.
The 5-foot-8 Hill knows he's not Bell, who has 6 inches and about 40 pounds on him. Bell logged more carries (382) than any FBS back in 2012, rushing for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns. He eclipsed 25 carries nine times and surpassed 30 carries seven times, doing so in each of Michigan State's last four games. Not surprisingly, Bell opted to skip his final season in East Lansing and enter the NFL draft.

The epitome of a power back, Bell racked up 922 rush yards after contact, the most in the FBS. Hill, who backed up Bell along with Larry Caper but had just 21 rushes for 48 yards and a touchdown, admits it wasn't easy to get on the field.

"They put me in some different packages here and there like jet sweeps," Hill said, "or if [Bell] came out, I went in. He was the best back we had, so it was tough, but I competed every day."

Hill is competing these days for the top running back spot. He opened the spring as the starter and has been sharing first-team reps with Jeremy Langford through the first few practices. Nick Tompkins also is in the mix, and the race likely will spill into preseason camp, as three freshmen arrive on campus.

"I look at it as competition, guys looking to be the best we can be," Hill said. "At the same time, I'm No. 1 on the chart."

Hill's speed has never been an issue -- he has been MSU's primary kick returner the past two seasons and also returned 13 punts -- but he made power a priority in the offseason, mindful of the increased carries load he hopes to have. He put on 10 pounds, checking in at around 195.

Michigan State strength coach Ken Mannie and Hill put together a power plan for Hill's winter workouts. The results: Hill increased his squat to 615 pounds and his bench press to 420.

"By me gaining more muscle and more power in my legs, and more weight," Hill said, "it will allow me to drive through the linebackers and through the hole."

While some view Hill's size as a disadvantage -- Hill thinks it turned off some teams during his college recruitment -- the Spartans junior thinks it can give him an edge, even in a league like the Big Ten. In fact, some of Michigan State's defenders have told him they struggle to locate him after he takes the handoff.

"Offensive linemen are about 6-4, 6-5, 6-6, and I'm 5-8," he said, "so hiding behind them and using my speed and my quickness to make cuts, they have a hard time [finding me].

"And by that time, I'm already at the next level."

Michigan State has a history of big backs, from Lorenzo White in the 1980s to more recently T.J. Duckett, Jehuu Caulcrick and Bell. But Javon Ringer also starred as a featured back for the Spartans despite his 5-9, 202-pound frame. Ringer led the nation in carries (390) in 2008 and earned All-America honors.

Hill occasionally exchanges text messages with Ringer, who has told him: When people on defense underestimate you, make ‘em pay.

Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio described Hill as "confident" so far this spring. But there's still a lot to prove, as Hill needs to show speed, power, shiftiness, durability and ball security, which has been a bit of an issue for him on returns.

"I can do a lot of things Le'Veon can do," Hill said. "The difference is, obviously, he's 6-2 and I'm 5-8. But other than that, I think I can bring a lot of good qualities to the table with my speed, pass pro, catching the ball out of the backfield and helping the team win."
As both Wisconsin and Michigan State are finding out, the difficult step from good program to potential powerhouse must be taken in hostile territory.

Make no mistake: both programs have made significant strides in the past year and a half. They shared a Big Ten championship in 2010. They recently have put players on the national radar such as J.J. Watt, Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, Javon Ringer, Montee Ball and Greg Jones. They're both recruiting well and have coaches (Bret Bielema and Mark Dantonio) who are unlikely to jump ship. Since the start of the 2010 season, neither team has lost a game in its own stadium.

But as we've seen the past two weeks, neither Wisconsin nor Michigan State has truly arrived. The reason: The Badgers and Spartans both struggle to win signature road games.

The issue seems more pronounced with Michigan State than Wisconsin -- more on that in a bit -- but it's separating these two programs from truly putting themselves in the upper echelon.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteWisconsin waged furious fourth-quarter comebacks in losses to MSU and OSU, but lost after giving up long pass plays in the final minute of each game.
The Spartans and Badgers are not alone in their struggles. Road wins against good teams have been especially hard to come by this season. Home teams are 18-8 in Big Ten play, and the only division title contender with a home defeat is Ohio State, which fell to Michigan State on Oct. 1.

"You know in this league you're going to go in and get punched in the mouth," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "You better punch back."

Michigan State and Wisconsin must start punching back more often.

Wisconsin isn't far away from making the jump. The Badgers' past four losses -- three road, one at the Rose Bowl -- have come by only 22 points. Their only losses this season -- at Michigan State and at Ohio State -- ultimately resulted from allowing long pass plays in the final minute of the game. And in each contest, the Badgers rallied furiously in the fourth quarter, erasing deficits of 14 points at Michigan State and 12 points at Ohio State.

But the Badgers aren't doing the little things needed to beat good teams on the road. They had punts blocked in each of the games, leading to touchdowns for their opponents. They struggled to get off the field on defense, as MSU and OSU combined to convert 19 of 36 third-down attempts. They didn't control possession time and struggled on punt and kickoff coverage. And in crunch time, they either failed to execute on defense (Michigan State) or had a communication breakdown (Ohio State).

"Every year on the road, it's tough to get a win," Bielema said. "And if you inflict wounds on yourself, it's nearly impossible. We did too many things that cost us the game."

Wisconsin cleared some of its road hurdles in 2010, rallying to win at Iowa and beating Michigan in the Big House for the first time since 1994. The Badgers recorded three consecutive road wins in the Big Ten for the first time since 2006, Bielema's first season.

But in what many believed was Wisconsin's defining stretch of 2011, the Badgers came up short away from home. It cost them a potential shot at the national title and possibly more.

"It's not like we embarrassed ourselves the last two weeks," Bielema said Monday. "There's plenty of teams around the world of college football that were higher ranked than we were that got pounded pretty good by people that weren't ranked or weren't good teams. So I understand why people are upset. And, believe me, there's no one who will be more upset than me, but we didn't make a fool out of ourselves.

"We lost a couple of plays, a couple of games on the heartaches that will last for a lifetime."

Michigan State can't make the same claim about its struggles away from Sparta.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
Matt Cashore/US PresswireIn two road losses this season, Michigan State has been outscored 55-16.
The Spartans' two losses this season -- at Notre Dame and at Nebraska -- have come by a combined score of 55-16. Their two losses in 2010 -- one road, one at the Capital One Bowl -- came by a combined score of 86-13.

"That's one of the things we talked about ... if we're going to win the conference or have an opportunity to be close to it, we've got to go on the road and win," Dantonio said. "We have won 12 straight games here at home. We've not lost since '09 at home. So we're doing things pretty well here. ... But nevertheless, you've got to go on the road and win. It's a tough environment all over this conference, but you've got to embrace that and be successful there."

Like Wisconsin, Michigan State has taken some steps on the road. It clinched a share of the league title last November with its first win at Penn State since 1965 -- two years after falling to the Nittany Lions 49-18 in a game with similar implications. The win at Ohio State marked Michigan State's first in Columbus since 1998.

But the lopsided losses to Notre Dame and Nebraska signal Michigan State has a long way to go to be a consistently good road team.

"No matter where we play, no matter what stadium, what field, what fan base we have to go against, we still have to be willing to go up and step to the challenge and respond," Spartans defensive tackle Jerel Worthy told ESPN.com. "It's all about a mindset. We just have to go out there, quiet the crowd early and just play your brand of football."

Michigan State's brand this season has been outstanding defense. The Spartans rank in the top six nationally in points allowed, yards allowed and passing yards allowed. Even in the two road losses, Worthy and his fellow defenders have performed well.

The Spartans' problems have come on offense. Michigan State has scored just 26 points and averaged just 288.6 yards on the road. The Spartans have committed six of their 11 turnovers in the three road contests.

It's no wonder Dantonio says his team must take a different mindset on the road -- "more of a defensive posture," he said.

"That's good for him to say," Worthy said. "It shows the confidence he has in our defense."

Of the top six Big Ten title contenders, Wisconsin and Michigan State have the most favorable remaining schedules. Both teams must go on the road twice, and while neither the Badgers nor Spartans face a ranked team away from home -- Wisconsin visits Minnesota and Illinois; Michigan State visits Iowa and Northwestern -- recent history shows they can't take any game for granted.

If both squads survive, they could reunite Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.
Michigan State went through the previous offseason with a chip on its shoulder, the product of a subpar performance on the field in 2009 and a more disappointing display off it.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan State head coach Mark Dantonio is working to make sure the Spartans build on the momentum they created with 11 wins last season.
Throughout the winter, spring and summer of 2010, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio talked about adversity making a team stronger. His team responded with an 11-win season and a share of its first Big Ten title in 20 years.

So has the mood changed around East Lansing following the success of 2010? Not a chance.

"We have not taken the approach that we're the hunted," Dantonio told me Tuesday morning. "We still feel like there's something we have to prove and work on. We've talked a lot to our players about handling success. For every team that had a good year last year, the opportunity to repeat that same type of success becomes even more difficult.

"But with that being said, we're a more confident team, which should [help], especially when we have to go on the road this year."

Dantonio spent much of May and June meeting individually with every Spartans player for 30-40 minutes. He met Monday with quarterback Kirk Cousins.

"It's more about continuing to gain respect," Dantonio said. "We've got the same type of attitude that we carried in last summer, that we've got to prove our worth on a daily basis."

Recruiting remains a focus for Michigan State after the spring evaluation period, and lately it has been a bit of a touchy subject for Spartans fans. After several years where Michigan State excelled in the local and regional recruiting scene, archrival Michigan has re-established itself under new coach Brady Hoke and his staff.

Michigan already has 16 verbal commits for 2012, including seven in-state prospects and seven from neighboring Ohio. One of Michigan's recruits from Ohio, linebacker Kaleb Ringer, is the nephew of former Michigan State All-American running back Javon Ringer. The Wolverines' class ranks No. 6 nationally according to ESPN Recruiting.

Michigan State isn't exactly struggling on the recruiting trail. The Spartans have five commits, including Ohio quarterback recruit Tyler O'Connor and their lone in-state prospect, linebacker Riley Bullough, the younger brother of Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough.

But not surprisingly, Michigan's rapid start to recruiting has taken away some of the spotlight.

"Michigan's got a great program," Dantonio said. "When somebody new takes over, there's always going to be an influx of energy into that program. They have a lot of positives to draw from. In many ways, you grow up in this state and you're green or you're blue. That's the way it goes sometimes, but we'll continue to recruit Michigan hard. They have great high school football here, and we'll get our guys."

Dantonio described Michigan State's 2012 recruiting progress as "very, very good."

One state both Michigan State and Michigan will continue to recruit is Ohio, which could be more vulnerable because of the recent turmoil at Ohio State.

"I don't see that right now because it's so new," Dantonio said, referring to the changes at Ohio State. "We have an opportunity every single day to recruit people from all over the country."
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Several days after Michigan State's disheartening loss in the Capital One Bowl, running back Edwin Baker turned his focus toward the 2011 season.

[+] EnlargeEdwin Baker
AP Photo/Tony DingMichigan State's Edwin Baker finished with 1,201 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
Baker always has motivated himself with tangible goals, and the coming season would be no different.

In high school, Baker set the bar at 1,000 rushing yards per season. He racked up 1,295 yards as a prep junior and finished with 863 yards as a senior despite missing four games with a hyper-extended knee. Before last season, he once again targeted 1,000 rushing yards and finished with 1,201 to go along with 13 touchdowns.

But Baker really raised the stakes for himself in 2011. His magic numbers are 2,000 rush yards and 21 touchdowns.

"It's definitely a big difference," Baker said. "But if I want to be an elite player, I have to make elite goals."

Baker's goals aren't totally random. He knows that Michigan State has had only one 2,000-yard rusher in a season, as Lorenzo White racked up 2,066 yards in 1985.

The 21 touchdowns would tie Baker for second on Michigan State's single-season list with former bruiser Jehuu Caulcrick. Former Spartans All-American Javon Ringer holds the record with 22 scores in 2008.

Baker understands the lofty goals mean nothing unless he backs them up this fall. And it'll take a lot of work to come close to his magic numbers.

The 5-foot-9, 208-pound Baker always has stood out in the weight room, earning the nickname "Rock" for his physique. His body hasn't changed, but Baker spent much of the offseason working on his mind.

"I've been watching a lot more film, trying to get my football IQ up," Baker said. "I'm trying to read defenses with [quarterback] Kirk Cousins, and I'm picking up more and more every day at practice. Just trying to become a complete football player."

Despite Baker's production as the team's featured back in 2010, Michigan State's spring depth chart showed three co-starters in the backfield: Baker, sophomore Le'Veon Bell and junior Larry Caper, Baker's roommate. Bell was extremely impressive in the first half of the 2010 season, while Caper looked like the team's running back of the future in 2009.

Coach Mark Dantonio calls the running back situation "very competitive," but Baker has only helped himself this spring.

"He gained a lot of confidence a year ago in his play," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said of Baker. "He has a whole other level of maturity. He's going into his third season here, and it's showing in the way he's playing."

Several ex-Spartans now in the NFL have spent time around the Skandalaris Football Center this spring, including Ringer. Baker has latched onto the former Michigan State star, who had 390 carries and 1,637 rush yards in 2008.

"I always want to know, what can I do to get better?" Baker said. "He says, 'Go out there and be you. Play hard and run hard and don't try to make things that aren't there.' Like [running backs coach Brad] Salem always says, 'You've got to get four [yards] to get 44.' The big plays are going to happen."

Baker will need plenty to reach his goals this fall.

"I reached my goal last year," he said. "Now I'm going to reach for a much bigger goal."

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The image will ring a bell for Michigan State fans: a triumphant running back bringing his entire offensive line into the interview room after a huge performance against an archrival.

In 2008, Javon Ringer did it after gashing Notre Dame for 201 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries in a suffocating 23-7 victory at Spartan Stadium. Standing in front of his top five trailblazers, Ringer declared, "I can do nothing without these guys paving the way for me. ... I told y'all they should be doing the interviews instead of me."

As you might remember, Ringer went on to earn All-America honors and the Spartans made their strongest push for a Big Ten title since 1999. Michigan State embodied the "pound green pound" philosophy Mark Dantonio espoused after becoming the team's coach, as Ringer led the nation in carries (390) and scoring (10.2 points per game).

Fast forward to late Saturday afternoon, moments after No. 17 Michigan State finished off a 34-17 win against No. 18 Michigan.

[+] EnlargeEdwin Baker
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Edwin Baker rushed for 147 yards and a touchdown against Michigan.
The door opened to the visitors' interview room at Michigan Stadium, and Spartans running back Edwin Baker entered, followed by the team's starting offensive line. Baker racked up 147 rushing yards and a touchdown.

What was the plan on offense?

"Pound green pound," Baker said. "Today we showcased to everybody in the world that we're going to run the ball. We're going to be Big Ten champions."

Bold words from Baker, but after Michigan State pounded Michigan into submission Saturday, he might be onto something.

The Spartans' offense is rediscovering its identity after a season of new faces in key places. And this year's unit might have both the balance and firepower Michigan State lacked in 2008, enough to take the team one step further.

Want to see balance? Don Treadwell's offense racked up 287 pass yards and 249 rush yards against Michigan.

Want to see power? Simply watch Michigan State's 10-play, 93-yard scoring drive in the third quarter, which featured eight run plays, capped fittingly by a bruising 8-yard scoring run by Larry Caper that pushed Michigan defenders past their own goal line.

"It got to a point where we could impose our will on them," Spartans guard Joel Foreman said. "We were dominating this line of scrimmage, and that's what we wanted to work for."

Last season, Michigan State finished second in the Big Ten in passing (269.4 yards per game) and first in passing touchdowns (28). But the rushing offense ranked a middling sixth in the league and 73rd nationally.

The Spartans had no clear successor for Ringer and tried several young players, namely both Caper and Baker, as their featured backs.

"That was our main goal this season," Baker said, "establish the run game and run hard and get over 100 yards every game. We didn't do that last season."

The Spartans have returned to the run this fall, eclipsing 200 rushing yards in five of their first six games. Baker on Saturday recorded his third 100-yard effort of the season, and true freshman Le'Veon Bell, who had a 41-yard touchdown dash against Michigan, has twice reached triple digits.

The ground swell hasn't diminished Michigan State's pass attack. Far from it.

Junior quarterback Kirk Cousins dissected Michigan's weak secondary for 284 yards, completing 18 of 25 passes and spreading the ball to eight different receivers. Cousins has improved with each game, executing the play-action to perfection and boosting his completion percentage to 68.2 percent.

"That's what makes our offense so deadly, the ability we have to balance," said receiver Mark Dell, who had a 41-yard touchdown grab and 93 receiving yards in the game. "We can come out all day and run, and still execute, and we can come out and pass and execute.

"The variety that we have and the balance that we show makes our offense dangerous."

Arguably no group came out of Saturday more satisfied than the offensive line, a group heavily doubted before the season. After allowing two first-half sacks, the line kept Cousins clean and wore down Michigan's front, the strength of the Wolverines' defense.

"Every game is a statement game for our offensive line," Foreman said.

And even at the end, with the game well in hand, Michigan State continued to pound away. Facing a fourth-and-2, fifth-year senior center John Stipek told the huddle, "Guys, let's get this first down. I want to beat Michigan."

Baker ran up the gut for 5 yards and then the Spartans took a knee.

The statement?

"We are Big Ten contenders," Baker said. "And we're going to showcase that every week."
How many yards will Denard Robinson, the nation's leading rusher, put up Saturday against No. 17 Michigan State?

What about Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell? Both Spartans backs are capable of gashing a weak Michigan defense.

If Robinson, Baker or Bell have a big day on the ground Saturday, it wouldn't be the first time in the Michigan-Michigan State series. In fact, most of the recent meetings have featured impressive performances by ball carriers.

Thanks to ESPN's Stats & Information for this list ...

2008 -- Javon Ringer (MSU): 37 rush, 194 yards, 2 TD in 35-21 win

2005 -- Mike Hart (MICH): 36 rush, 218 yards, TD in 34-31 (OT) win

2004 -- Mike Hart (MICH): 33 rush, 224 yards, TD in 45-37 (3OT) win

2004 -- DeAndra Cobb (MSU): 22 rush, 205 yards, 2 TD in 45-37 (3OT) loss

2003 -- Chris Perry (MICH): 51 rush, 219 yards, TD in 27-20 win

2001 -- T.J. Duckett (MSU): 27 rush, 211 yards, TD in 26-24 win

Spartans ground game gets green light

September, 16, 2010
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Michigan State achieved nearly perfect offensive balance in 2009 with 419 rushes and 423 passes.

So why did the Spartans seem so lopsided?

Nearly two-thirds of Michigan State's total yards (3,502 out of 5,281, 66.3 percent) and touchdowns scored (28 of 44, 63.6 percent) came through the air. The Spartans boasted the Big Ten's No. 2 pass offense but finished a middling sixth in rushing average.

Something didn't feel right, especially for a team coached by Mark Dantonio, a disciple of Jim Tressel and Nick Saban.

When freshman running back Le'Veon Bell enrolled early this past winter, Dantonio had a message for him.

"He basically said he wanted to run the ball this year," Bell said. "He wanted to get back to the 'Pound Green Pound.'"

[+] EnlargeEdwin Baker
AP Photo/Al GoldisRunning back Edwin Baker has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in each of Michigan State's first two games this season.
That was the motto Dantonio espoused after becoming Spartans coach. Michigan State finished 25th nationally in rushing in his first season as head coach in 2007. The following year, running back Javon Ringer earned All-America honors after finishing fourth nationally in rushing (1,637 yards) and leading the nation in carries (390).

Michigan State's ground game took a step back last fall, in part because its best backs, Larry Caper and Edwin Baker, were true freshmen. But things are changing so far this season.

"I knew we had some very capable running backs," Dantonio said. "I also knew we needed to assert ourselves a little bit more in the running game than we did last year. We're doing that."

Through two games, Michigan State ranks second in the Big Ten and 11th nationally in rushing average (261 ypg), boasting a whopping 7.8 yards-per-carry average and six touchdowns. More impressive is the fact that the Spartans are doing it without Caper, who started five games last season but has sat out the first two contests with a hand injury.

Baker and Bell both rank among the Big Ten's top eight rushers. Baker, who didn't eclipse 100 yards in any game as a freshman, already has two 100-yard yard performances this fall and ranks fifth nationally in rushing average (150 ypg).

More good news should come Saturday night, as Caper likely will make his season debut against Notre Dame (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). The Spartans will be able to spread out the carries and keep their backs fresh.

"That was our main goal, to establish a run game," Baker said. "Last year, we didn't establish that. We took it upon ourselves -- me, Larry and Le'Veon -- and we said, 'We're going to make this run game a big deal.'"

Baker admitted to being overwhelmed last season.

After appearing in the opener against Montana State, he experienced soreness in his surgically repaired knee and sat out the next five games. Michigan State considered redshirting Baker, but he returned to the field in October.

When he did, his head was swimming.

"I was thinking a lot, thinking about my assignment too much, thinking, ‘Dang, am I really supposed to do this?’" Baker recalled. "I had a lot of emotions and a lot of things going around me, from my injury, then me [possibly] getting redshirted.

"Now I'm out here, I'm 100 percent, I'm free-minded. I feel great."

He's playing great, too. Baker's goal is to produce at least one big play per game, and he achieved it last week with an 80-yard touchdown run against Florida Atlantic.

Bell also recorded his first breakaway run, a 75-yarder in the opener against Western Michigan. But at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Bell understands his primary role.

"I'm a bigger guy," Bell said. "I can be used in short-down situations. I can catch the ball out of the backfield. I can get a lot of the tough yardage. I think I'm a very patient runner, and I'm a great pass protector."

Bell has a similar makeup to the 5-11, 220-pound Caper, while Baker, at 5-9 and 208 pounds, draws more comparisons to Ringer in both body type and running style.

Dantonio provides the scouting report for each back.

Baker: "Extremely powerful, quick, explosive in the hole, great balance."

Bell: "Power, vision, ability to hit a hole square, runs through tackles."

Caper: "A power-type runner, sort of a slashing-type runner and great speed, great athlete."

"They all complement each other," Dantonio said.

After two fairly easy wins, Michigan State needs a boost from its backs Saturday night as the competition gets tougher. Notre Dame held Purdue to 102 rush yards in a Sept. 4 victory, but the Irish had no answer for Michigan's Denard Robinson (258 rush yards) last week.

Baker saw snippets of the Michigan-Notre Dame game, and while he'll never heap too much praise on a Wolverine, he liked what he saw.

"That's a key thing that [Robinson] was running on them," Baker said. "That shows me that I can run on them, and so can our other running backs. We're going to take that to our advantage.”
From the moment Larry Caper and Edwin Baker arrived at Michigan State, the running backs have pushed each other.

Their competition extends far beyond the football field.

[+] EnlargeLarry Caper
Robin Alam/Icon SMILarry Caper led a committee of running backs last season, gaining 468 yards and scoring six TDs.
"If we’re just walking down the hallway, I call him, 'Little guy,' 'cause he’s little," Caper said.

The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Caper has two inches and about 20 pounds on Baker, but Baker has a compact, sculpted frame, earning the nickname "Rock." That brings up another frequent debate between the two backs: Who's stronger?

"He’s pretty strong," Caper admits, before adding, "He thinks he’s stronger than he is."

Baker makes it clear: "I'm stronger."

For most of us, the constant competition would get a bit tiresome, even if most of it is friendly in nature. But Caper and Baker would have things no other way.

The two sophomores chose to room together at Michigan State and intend to do so for the remainder of their college careers. They will compete for carries this fall -- head coach Mark Dantonio wants to divide things 50-50 or as close to it as possible -- and possibly for the next two seasons as well.

"That’s going to be my roommate for the next three years," Caper said, "One and two, me and him, Cape and Bake."

After losing All-American Javon Ringer following the 2008 season, Michigan State used a committee of backs last fall, as four players recorded 40 or more carries. Caper led the way with 120 carries for 468 yards and six touchdowns, and Baker followed with 85 carries for 427 yards and a score.

The Spartans ranked second in the league in passing but just sixth in rushing and ninth in rushing attempts with 419. The coaches expect things to balance out this fall, in large because because both Caper and Baker have a year under their belts.

The two players bring different styles to the backfield. Caper is a pure power back -- head coach Mark Dantonio likened him to former Iowa star Shonn Greene -- while Baker describes himself as "somewhat power [back], somewhat scat back," and adds, "real quick."

[+] EnlargeEdwin Baker
Davis/US PresswireEdwin Baker rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries in last season's Alamo Bowl.
"His initial from A to C is just tremendous," offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said. "He just has that burst, but he also has a lot of strength with that, a very compact build."

Caper had a nice stretch early in Big Ten play last fall, scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Michigan and following with 158 rushing yards and two touchdowns in wins against Illinois and Northwestern. Baker played in the opener before missing five games with an injury. (He underwent knee surgery in high school.) He started in place of Caper against Western Michigan and recorded 78 rush yards on only 15 carries.

Baker finished his freshman season with his best performance, rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown on only 12 carries against Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.

"Both those young men, you could see a difference even from the regular season to the time we played Texas Tech in the bowl," Treadwell said. "They were understanding where to hit the hole, 'What’s my footwork? What am I supposed to be reading?' And it showed itself. Now you spin it forward into spring football, and you see it even more.

"They’re a tremendous duo."

Treadwell calls the running backs "good friends" and notes that it's not always the case with two strong competitors.

Baker has some extra motivation the season after being snubbed in Michigan State's player draft for the spring game. Caper was the first running back drafted, but next came freshman Le'Veon Bell, not Baker.

Then again, Baker doesn't need to prove much to the team. Just his roommate.

"We compete at everything," Baker said. "That's how we want to get better."

Big Ten players of the decade

January, 19, 2010
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Our decade recap continues with a look at the top players in the Big Ten from 2000-09. The league produced just one Heisman Trophy winner, Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006, but many other national award recipients on both sides of the ball.

We saw outstanding one-year performances from players like Brad Banks (2002), Larry Johnson (2002), James Hardy (2007) and Shonn Greene (2008), and impressive four-year career efforts from Paul Posluszny, James Laurinaitis, Mike Hart, Javon Ringer, Taylor Stubblefield and others.

[+] EnlargeTroy Smith
Jason Parkhurst/US PresswireOhio State's Troy Smith was the runaway winner of the Heisman Trophy in 2006.
The league produced solid linemen and linebackers the entire decade, while star quarterbacks and running backs were sprinkled throughout.

Believe me, it wasn't easy to get this list down to 10 players, but here goes.

I put more weight on players who had multiple outstanding seasons. Also, players who had most of their production in the 1990s didn't make the cut.

1. Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State: The league's lone Heisman Trophy winner tops the list. Smith took home the Heisman, the Walter Camp and the Big Ten MVP awards in 2006. He also led Ohio State to a Fiesta Bowl championship following the 2005 season.

2. Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan: The 2004 Biletnikoff Award winner earned consensus All-America honors that year, completing a terrific four-year run in Ann Arbor. Edwards still holds the Big Ten record for career touchdown receptions with 39, two more than fellow Wolverine Anthony Carter.

3. A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State: Hawk was the face of a ferocious Buckeyes defense during the mid part of the decade. The two-time All-American (unanimous in 2005) won the Rotary Lombardi Award and helped Ohio State to a Fiesta Bowl victory.

4. Joe Thomas, T, Wisconsin: The Thomas-Jake Long debate is a good one, but I'm giving the edge to Thomas, the 2006 Outland Trophy winner. Thomas anchored several powerful Wisconsin offensive lines, earned consensus All-America honors in 2006 and twice made the All-Big Ten squad.

5. Paul Posluszny, LB, Penn State: Posluszny is one of only two Big Ten players to win the Bednarik Award two times. He also took home the Butkus Award in 2005 and helped restore Penn State after the program had slipped from 2000-04.

6. James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State: Laurinaitis was quite possibly the most decorated Big Ten player of the decade on either side of the ball. He joined select company at Ohio State in earning All-America honors three times (unanimous in 2007). Laurinaitis won the Butkus and Nagurski awards and twice earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

7. Greg Eslinger, C, Minnesota: Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III shared the rushing load, but Eslinger was the mainstay who created rushing lanes no matter who had the ball. The 2005 Rimington Trophy winner was Minnesota's only three-time All-Big Ten selection this decade.

8. Bob Sanders, S, Iowa: No player meant more to Iowa's renaissance this decade than Sanders, the team's only three-time All-Big Ten selection in the aughts. Nicknamed "The Hitman," Sanders epitomized a program that got the most from its players for the majority of the decade.

9. Mike Hart, RB, Michigan: We witnessed lot of great one-year performances from Big Ten running backs, but Hart was one of the league's few mainstays this decade. Despite being plagued by injuries as a sophomore, Hart finished fourth on the Big Ten's all-time rushing list (5,040 yards) and had 28 career 100-yard rushing games.

10. Antwaan Randle El, QB, Indiana: Randle El brought a new brand of football to the Big Ten and had a record-setting career despite never reaching a bowl game. The dual-threat star won Big Ten MVP honors in 2001 and ranks fourth on the league's career total offense list with 11,364 yards.

Also considered: Michigan T Jake Long, Michigan State WR Charles Rogers, Michigan State RB Javon Ringer, Iowa QB Brad Banks, Iowa T Robert Gallery, Purdue WR Taylor Stubblefield, Ohio State WR Ted Ginn Jr., Michigan DE LaMarr Woodley, Illinois RB Rashard Mendenhall, Penn State QB Michael Robinson, Penn State RB Larry Johnson, Purdue WR Dorien Bryant, Purdue WR John Standeford, Ohio State S Mike Doss, Wisconsin DE Erasmus James, Iowa RB Shonn Greene, Northwestern QB Brett Basanez, Illinois LB J Leman, Penn State LB Dan Connor.

Spartans' Enos lands CMU top job

January, 11, 2010
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Mark Dantonio often attributes his early success at Michigan State to coaching continuity. Since his arrival in 2007, Dantonio has kept his staff fully intact, a rarity in today's college football.

But nothing lasts for ever, and for the first time at MSU, Dantonio must replace one of his top assistants.

Michigan State running backs coach Dan Enos has reportedly landed the head-coaching job at Central Michigan, where he's expected to be introduced Tuesday. Enos, a former Michigan State quarterback, looks like an excellent choice for the Chippewas, and a big loss for the Spartans.

He was the biggest reason for Michigan State's recent in-state recruiting surge. Enos served as Dantonio's lead recruiter in the Detroit area and helped to land top prospects like Edwin Baker, Larry Caper, Dion Sims and Keshawn Martin. He also coached star back Javon Ringer and helped Caper and Baker develop nicely this fall.

Michigan State certainly lost some momentum on the field this season, but the program must continue to be a major player in recruiting within the state. Expect Enos' replacement to have strong ties to the Detroit area and some of the top high school programs there.

Illinois defensive backs coach Curt Mallory also was a finalist for the Central Michigan job. Rivals.com's Tom Dienhart reports that Mallory, who recently was demoted from a co-defensive coordinator spot, likey will land at Akron as the Zips' new defensive coordinator.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Time to put a bow on Week 2 in the Big Ten with five lessons learned.

1. Michigan is back -- The Wolverines are young and not very deep at several spots, but they're extremely resilient and clearly on the right track under second-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. True freshman Tate Forcier delivered a performance to remember against a good Notre Dame team, completing 6 of 7 passes for 56 yards and a touchdown on the game's decisive drive. Rodriguez's offense has returned to form behind Forcier, running back Brandon Minor and a much improved line. Michigan has closed the book on last season's 3-9 disaster and could make a serious push for the Big Ten title.

2. Ohio State's offense needs a spark -- When you start four possessions inside the opponent's territory, even if the opponent is USC, you need to get more than two field goals. Buckeyes running back Brandon Saine said after Saturday's game that "we always talk about ending each drive with a kick." But too often since 2007, those kicks have been field goal attempts, not extra point attempts. Whether it's Jim Tressel's play-calling or Terrelle Pryor's inconsistency or an unproven supporting cast around Pryor, something just isn't clicking for the Buckeyes on offense and it cost them a huge win against the Trojans.

3. The Big Ten isn't that bad -- After being ripped all week and most of Saturday afternoon, the Big Ten held its own in the key games. Michigan upset Notre Dame and Ohio State dominated USC for most of the way. Purdue paced Oregon at Autzen Stadium, Iowa rebounded strong at Iowa State and both Minnesota and Wisconsin notched nice wins against Air Force and Fresno State. The Big Ten might not be at the SEC's level, but it hasn't suffered multiple embarrassments like the ACC or the Big 12. Though the USC loss stings, having Michigan back on the national scene really helps the league's overall perception.

4. A new group of running backs emerges -- The Big Ten no longer has Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer or Chris "Beanie" Wells, but the league is once again reloading at the running back spot. Purdue's Ralph Bolden looks like a star in two games, while Wisconsin's John Clay delivered a bounce-back performance and Indiana's Demetrius McCray sparked a dormant rushing attack. Michigan's Minor and Illinois' Jason Ford were superb in their returns from injuries. Iowa turned to a true freshman (Brandon Wegher) and a redshirt freshman (Adam Robinson) to ease its rushing woes. Junior Stephen Simmons has emerged as Northwestern's top back after a very nice performance Saturday.

5. League race could be a lot more interesting -- The Big Ten has been pegged as a two-team league, but several other squads could work their way into a wide-open race. Michigan has looked more impressive than any Big Ten team so far, and Iowa made a strong statement in Ames after an extremely shaky start against Northern Iowa. Ohio State clearly has some issues on offense, and Penn State's run game struggled against Syracuse at home. Everything still could come down to Penn State-Ohio State on Nov. 7 in Happy Valley, but a few more matchups will shape the league race.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Running the football is the easy part for Michigan State freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper.

It's the reason why they're both at Michigan State. It's the reason why the Spartans fully expect both to get carries this fall as the team tries to replace Doak Walker Award finalist Javon Ringer, who accounted for nearly 41 percent of the team's offensive production in 2008.

With the starting running back spot still very much up for grabs, Baker and Caper both feel they can contribute right away.

"I feel I'm ready," Baker said. "There are still things I need to work on, but I can be a good asset for this team."

There's little doubt what Baker and Caper can do with the ball in their hands, but both players still need to become more complete running backs at the college level. Pass blocking is the top priority for both freshmen, who haven't fully grasped the complexities of their assignments.

Ringer earned high marks in pass protection despite his smallish frame, and Michigan State tied for fourth in the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed last fall (24). The Spartans would have finished higher if not for their final two games, when they allowed a combined nine sacks to Penn State and Georgia.

"The coaches are chewing my head off [about pass blocking]," said Baker, who has a similar frame to Ringer and once rushed for 462 yards in a game. "In high school, I was asked to block the quarterback's left side or right side. I wasn't asked to check the A-gap or B-gap."

The 5-11, 215-pound Caper certainly has the size to be a strong pass blocker, but he's adjusting to the added responsibility backs have in college ball.

"Everybody has to block in football, but it's more intense now that one assignment can blow the whole play," said Caper, who rushed for 4,226 yards as a prep star. "It wasn't like that in high school. But I'm adjusting to it. I just need to know what I'm doing and when."

The good news for both freshmen is they'll likely have the chance to improve without redshirting this season. Head coach Mark Dantonio recently told reporters that the two freshmen are "explosively college-ready."

Caper was pleased with his performance in a freshman-only scrimmage Monday, saying he averaged about five yards a carry.

"I run with a passion," he said. "I don't like to go down easy or run out of bounds or anything like that. I try to never let up, make sure I finish every run."

And every block.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Ever since Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy in 2006, the Big Ten has been mostly absent from the discussion about college football's most coveted award. No Big Ten player finished in the top 10 in voting in 2007, when Florida's Tim Tebow won the trophy. Iowa running back Shonn Greene finished sixth in voting last year, while Michigan State running back Javon Ringer came in 10th.

Will the Big Ten have a horse in the Heisman race this fall?

Most prognosticators are overlooking the league's stars, and unfortunately, this award has more to do with preseason hype than anything else. But keep your eyes on these potential candidates.

Penn State QB Daryll Clark -- A first-team All-Big Ten selection last year, Clark did a fabulous job in leading Penn State to the Rose Bowl. By all accounts, he has gotten even better during the offseason. He faces an uphill climb in the Heisman race, however, because of Penn State's soft schedule. Clark must put up big numbers each and every time he steps on the field this fall. He also needs Iowa, Illinois and Ohio State to start strong so his performances against those teams would gain more national recognition.

Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor -- Pryor might be the Big Ten's best candidate for the Heisman, even though Clark is the more accomplished quarterback. Everyone in the country knows Pryor because of his hype during the recruiting process and his ascent to the Buckeyes starting job last year. Plus, Pryor gets an early chance to make a national statement when Ohio State faces USC on Sept. 12. Pryor needs a huge performance against the Trojans to have any shot at the Heisman, but he's a much improved player and will be watched throughout the season.

Penn State RB Evan Royster -- The big question will be how many carries Royster receives. He did major damage last fall despite limited carries and is the Big Ten's leading returning rusher. If Penn State feeds him often and he puts up big numbers every Saturday, he could make his way onto the Heisman radar. As with Clark, Royster will be fighting the schedule issue and likely won't be left on the field when a game is out of reach.

Illinois WR Arrelious Benn -- Like Pryor, Benn is a known name not only in Big Ten circles, but around the country. He was a big-time recruit who has matched the hype so far, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2007 and eclipsing 1,000 receiving yards last year. Benn needs another huge year this fall to have any shot, and his touchdowns total must go way up.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State sophomore running back Glenn Winston has been reinstated after serving jail time for his role in an assault that seriously injured an MSU hockey player.

Winston practiced with the team today as the Spartans opened preseason camp. Head coach Mark Dantonio said Winston, who began serving time in April, remained eligible and met all the conditions necessary to return to the field.

"Glenn has done everything that he's been asked to do from a judicial and a team standpoint," Dantonio said in a statement. "He has paid the penalty for his actions -- publicly, legally and athletically -- and he worked hard to maintain his academic eligibility while doing so. We regret the entire incident, however at this time, it is important that we support Glenn socially, academically and athletically. He still has a lot of work to do."

Winston pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of assault and was sentenced to 180 days in jail. The off-campus fight left hockey player A.J. Sturges with a serious head injury. Sturges hopes to return to the ice this season.

Winston appeared in seven games last season for Michigan State and led the team with 16 kickoff returns for 364 yards. He could be in the mix at running back, which remains an open competition following the departure of All-American Javon Ringer.

"I support Mark Dantonio's request to reinstate Glenn Winston," athletic director Mark Hollis said in a prepared statement. "Glenn has much work to do, however, the athletics department will not turn its back on this young man. I am supportive of all student-athletes that are a part of our program. We will move forward and continue to support A.J. Sturges and Glenn with all the resources available to us."

I'm all for second chances, but this decision definitely comes as a surprise. Sturges' family can't be pleased to see Winston back on the field. I figured Michigan State would release Winston and he could start over somewhere else.

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