Michigan State football's Harold Joiner III makes impression in running back battle

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EAST LANSING — There can only be one quarterback, typically, but Michigan State football’s backfield has another ongoing position battle that may continue all season.

And Harold Joiner III stands head and shoulders above the rest of his fellow running backs. At least in terms of size.

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Auburn transfer is competing with incumbent starter Jordon Simmons, 2019 starter Elijah Collins and Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III for carries in a crowded competition.

“I really liked what Harold Joiner did in (Saturday’s) scrimmage,” MSU coach Mel Tucker said Tuesday. “He was able to get his pads down and run with some authority. And he's got excellent ball skills out of the backfield.”

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Michigan State running back Harold Joiner (2) practices Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021 at the team's facility in East Lansing.
Michigan State running back Harold Joiner (2) practices Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021 at the team's facility in East Lansing.

Joiner is significantly bigger than the other three he is competing with, with more of a tight end or linebacker body than a traditional running back. Walker is 5-10 and 210 pounds, Simmons is 5-11 195, and Collins is 6-1 225. A fifth player, Connor Heyward, is shifting into more of an H-back hybrid role and is 6-foot and 230 pounds.

MSU offensive coordinator Jay Johnson feels despite Joiner’s size, the junior from Birmingham, Alabama, can give MSU’s offense additional versatility in both the running and passing attacks.

“He's long, he can run, and he's shown good ball skills to this point. So I think you could move him in a lot of different areas,” Johnson said. “And we've tried to do that a little bit with him. I see him as being very multiple in use.”

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A former four-star recruit, Joiner had 15 carries for 103 yards and two touchdowns and six catches for 128 yards and another TD in 17 games the past three seasons at Auburn. His delayed arrival at MSU until this summer allowed Walker to build a buzz during the spring after he enrolled in January. The sophomore scored 17 career rushing touchdowns and ran for 1,158 yards the past two seasons for the Demon Deacons, more than the Spartans got from all of their running backs since 2018.

No MSU running back reached the end zone last season, a drought that spans the past 11½ games and more than 700 minutes played since Collins scored two times against Illinois on Nov. 9, 2019. The Spartans ranked 13th in the conference and 122nd nationally last season at 91.4 rushing yards per game.

The hope is Joiner and Walker, along with a healthy Collins and a more-seasoned Simmons — who ran for a team-high 219 yards on 56 attempts as a true freshman — can do that. MSU also has redshirt freshman Donovan Eaglin and newcomer Davion Primm, a former Oak Park star who impressed Tucker during Saturday’s scrimmage with his ability to run through contact and keep moving forward.

“It's a very, very competitive room right now. Very, very competitive room,” Johnson said. “That's exciting.”

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That gives Johnson plenty of options depending on the package. Which can be a challenge for an offensive coordinator to find carries and roles for four or more running backs.

“I've never had a particular number,” Johnson said. “I think that's a very fine line in my opinion, because sometimes you want the hot guy, but then you can't burn the hot guy out. But then if you're trying to find the hot guy and there's three or four and they're in and out, do they ever get in the tempo or the rhythm? I know coach (William) Peagler is working hard on that. …

“I think at the end of the day, you're gonna have a couple the workhorses up front, and then the other guys are going to have to find their situation in their role to fit in.”

The Spartans’ second and final preseason scrimmage is scheduled for Saturday.

Juggling act

Michigan State's Keon Coleman runs after a catch during football camp on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, on the MSU campus in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Keon Coleman runs after a catch during football camp on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, on the MSU campus in East Lansing.

Tucker pointed to a number of newcomers who made impressions during the first scrimmage, quickly mentioning freshman wide receiver Keon Coleman. The second-year coach also spent one-on-one time after practice talking to redshirt freshman tight end Maliq Carr, a Purdue transfer Tucker said “is making some strides.”

They also had two sets of eyes on the sideline at practice Tuesday keeping an eye on them: Tom Izzo’s assistant coaches Dwayne Stephens and Mark Montgomery.

Both also are expected to play for MSU’s basketball team as walk-ons this winter. It will be a juggling act when that time comes, but Tucker and Johnson got experience last season managing a two-sport athlete with tight end and baseball pitcher Adam Berghorst. That gave them a blueprint, Johnson said, to managing the situation with Coleman and Carr — both of whom are pushing for immediate playing time this fall in football.

“I think the biggest thing ... is just great lines of communication between our staffs. That's what's been outstanding,” Johnson said. “Us and the basketball coaches, we're definitely on the same page. And right now, those guys' focus is football.

“If we get we get to a different part, that might change the basketball. But right now, it's all 100% football. And again with Adam, just the communication pieces with the baseball coaches has kind of helped us through that. And so as long as we're on the same page, it's very manageable.”

Harris honored

Former MSU linebacker and current director of player engagement Darien Harris was named to the seven-man NFL College Football Administrator Committee on Monday.

Harris’ group will work with the NFL to “provide feedback on engagement opportunities, identify strategies to enhance college outreach efforts, and develop effective solutions to support the college football player pathway,” according to a press release from MSU.

The group’s mission is to “collaborate with the (NFL) to provide feedback on engagement opportunities, identify strategies to enhance college outreach efforts, and develop effective solutions to support the college football player pathway.” It also will “provide critical feedback and identify new resources for the NFL College Outreach efforts as well as partner with the NFL on college-specific initiatives and programming.”

Harris played at MSU from 2012-15 and was captain of the Spartans’ 2015 Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff team. He also played with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016 and the Ottawa Redblacks of the Canadian Football League in 2017. He returned MSU and earned his master’s degree in marketing research in 2019 before joining Tucker’s staff in 2020.

“It means a lot to have this opportunity,” Harris said in a release. “We're always looking for ways to make the relationship between the NFL and collegiate football stronger.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Harold Joiner III makes impression in Michigan State RB battle