East Lansing — Three days later and Elijah Collins is still scrolling through text messages and checking mentions on social media.
From Snapchat to Twitter, Michigan State’s redshirt freshman running back had everyone talking on Saturday night. The former all-state player at UD-Jesuit was busy running all over the field in Michigan State’s 51-17 victory over Western Michigan, scampering for 29 yards on his first carry of the game and not slowing down until the Spartans called off the dogs.
Collins finished the game with 192 yards on 17 carries in his first career start, the most by a freshman starter in Michigan State history.
“Oh man,” Collins said on Tuesday, trying to contemplate how many people he’s heard from since then. “It was a lot of people a lot of people just kind of contacting me and say, ‘Thank you’ or ‘Proud of you.’ It was just kind of reassuring just to keep doing what I'm doing.”
What he’s been doing has been establishing himself as Michigan State’s No. 1 running back, something coach Mark Dantonio made clear.
“He’ll start this football game and he'll have the opportunity to get the majority of carries early and we'll see how it all shakes out,” Dantonio said as No. 18 Michigan State prepared to host Arizona State on Saturday. “I was impressed with him. I thought he had a burst. I thought he ran through tackles and he had good vision in the hole and good cutting ability. So, I mean, he did the job. I was impressed.”
It’s taken a little bit of time for Collins to get to this point. He saw action in three games last season as a true freshman, carrying the ball two times.
But adjusting from the high school level to the Big Ten took time. It was obvious Collins could run, it was the rest of the game he needed to get better at, namely pass protection. As those things improved, the confidence grew in Collins as the coaches became more comfortable putting him in the game.
He got a taste in the opener against Tulsa, carrying eight times for 17 yards. But it was a play that didn’t count that turned heads that night. It was a 15-yard touchdown run from Collins as he burst through the line and into the end zone. A questionable holding call wiped it out, but in that moment, Collins showed he had something a little extra.
It led to the start last week and the breakout performance.
“Definitely just knowing the game,” Collins said of how far he’s come in one season. “Last year, like I’ve said a lot of times, I didn't really know as much. I was out there just trying to run the ball, but now it's slowed down. Things are more methodical as opposed to just getting the ball and running.
“My pass pro has improved a lot because I know where guys are coming from. I'm starting to know a lot of the blitzes, what the defense is trying to do and where they’re bringing pressure from and when.”
Those are the things that will keep him on the field and give him the opportunity to make big plays. He had his share last week, including a 58-yard run in the second half.
What he’s still shooting for is that touchdown, one that eluded him in early in the fourth quarter when he dragged defenders for 12 yards to the 1-yard line, just short of his first touchdown. Sophomore La’Darius Jefferson scored on the next play.
It had teammate Darrell Stewart messing with Collins. It was Stewart, who two years ago, gave himself the nickname “Goal-line Stew” when he showed a knack for getting pulled down inside the 5-yard line.
“Yeah, me and D-Stew mess around a little bit,” Collins said. “He took the name a couple years ago. That’s on me now. I got to get in the end zone. I've been getting to the goal line but not in the end zone.”
Stewart laughed. He hasn’t come up with a flashy nickname yet for Collins because he’s confident the touchdown drought will end quickly for Collins.
“Oh yeah, he came to me, ‘I guess I'm like you now,’” Stewart said. “But I was like, ‘Man, you have the yards to do it, you just gotta find it and have a nose for the end zone.’ Oh yeah, he's a great guy, man. He's a great guy, a heck of an athlete, and I'm pretty sure he's gonna get an end zone soon
So, no nickname?
“No. I think for me it was a little different,” Stewart said. “But I believe in Eli. I think he's gonna get in the end zone this week.”
He’ll get the first crack at it. But as Dantonio has done throughout his tenure, he’ll use anyone who can carry the ball. Jefferson will continue to have a role, as will junior Connor Heyward and freshman Anthony Williams.
“I've always said that,” Dantonio said. “There's three or four guys, and you know, I was always talking a little bit about Elijah. Hey, once he matures a little bit as a player, not as a person, but as a player, you know he was going to have an opportunity to be special.”