Preview: Connor Heyward looks ready to contribute more for No. 15 Spartans
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Connor Heyward took the pitch from Brian Lewerke and had open field in front of him. Seconds later, he was in the end zone, having scored the biggest touchdown of his young college career.
“It always feels good to contribute in any way, whether you’re getting the ball or if you’re not,” the Michigan State running back said. “When you do get the ball, you have to make the most of it.”
Heyward did that in last week’s season opener, which the Spartans won 38-31 over upset-minded Utah State.
Heyward had 42 yards on just five carries, and two of those runs went for touchdowns. Michigan State was down by a point before Heyward’s 13-yard TD run on an option play with 2:00 remaining.
Although LJ Scott remains the focus of the Spartans’ running game, there’s room for another back to contribute, and Heyward is off to a nice start. The Spartans, who dropped four spots to No. 15 in Tuesday’s AP Top 25 , play at Arizona State on Saturday night.
Heyward is the son of the late Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, who played 11 seasons in the NFL and rushed for 4,301 yards. Cameron Heyward, a defensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is Connor’s older brother.
A high school standout in Georgia, Connor Heyward arrived at Michigan State and returned kicks last year as a freshman. His offensive contributions were minimal — three carries and four receptions on the season — but he figured to have an opportunity to do more in 2018.
“I think I’ve made a big stride from last year just knowing what to do,” Heyward said. “The more you’re out there, the more comfortable you get. From the bowl game, throughout spring ball, I think I had everything down for the most part. Camp was just tweaking up some different things.”
Scott is back for his senior season and is the undisputed top running back for the Spartans, but Madre London and Gerald Holmes are gone from last year’s team. That left a void behind Scott.
In the opener last week, Scott had a team-high 23 carries, quarterback Brian Lewerke had 10 and Heyward had five.
“I think Connor is our No. 2 tailback right now. He’s not bracketed as the No. 1,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s a very good player. When he earns that opportunity, if he’s bracketed, that will be something we discuss at that time. Right now LJ is our No. 1 tailback. We’ll ride that horse right now.”
The last time Michigan State had a 1,000-yard rusher was when Jeremy Langford had 1,522 in 2014. Even that season, there were still 107 carries left over for Nick Hill. There’s only so much the Spartans can lean on Scott.
Heyward had one carry for 1 yard in the first half against Utah State, and then contributed 28 yards on three carries — including a 17-yard touchdown — on Michigan State’s first drive of the second half. His next offensive touch came on the winning TD.
“I thought we played better as the game progressed,” Dantonio said. “Had too much pressure early in the game. I thought we did a better job protecting the quarterback, then running the football as the game progressed. I think Connor benefited from that.”