Michigan State football: 15 greatest running backs in Spartans history

Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State Spartans. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State Spartans. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /
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Jeremy Langford, Michigan State Spartans
Jeremy Langford, Michigan State Spartans. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

Michigan State football has had many talented tailbacks over the years. Here are the 15 greatest running backs in Michigan State Spartans football history.

The Michigan State Spartans have a rich football history. Michigan State football started way back in 1885. Through its 135-plus-year history, Michigan State has won over 700 games, 60 percent of its games, made it to 28 bowl games, won 11 conference championships, claimed six national titles and made it to the College Football Playoff for the first time in 2015.

Michigan State may not have a Heisman Trophy winner to call its own, but the Spartans have boasted 31 All-Americans, many of which were elite talents at the running back position. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as being able to pound the rock has been a crucial part of winning in the Big Ten landscape for a long time.

Though other blue-blood programs in the Big Ten might have more notable names in the pantheon of running backs, Michigan State has had plenty of excellent ball carriers of the years. A few of these guys went on to bigger and better things professionally in the NFL once they left East Lansing.

So what we’re going to do today is take a look back in time and reflect on the 15 best running backs to ever wear the green and white. Without further ado, let’s get started with a guy who played for the team in the late 1970s and happens to share a name with a star on the hardwood that came after him.

Steve Smith is a name that is far too commonplace in the national sports landscape. We’ve got the talented wide receiver that played collegiately at Utah and professionally for the Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens; he goes by Steve Smith Sr. Penn State had a running back that played for the Nittany Lions in the mid-1980s who would go on to play professionally for the then-Los Angeles Raiders and the Seattle Seahawks.

Of course, there is the hardwood legend who starred collegiately in East Lansing, playing in the NBA for teams like the Miami Heat, the Atlanta Hawks and the Portland Trail Blazers most notably. But what Steve Smith are we talking about here?

The Steve Smith we’re talking about played his four years of football in the green and white from 1977 to 1980. Smith played for most of the Darryl Rogers era in East Lansing, with his senior season in 1980 playing for a future College Football Hall of Fame head coach in Muddy Waters.

Though never a 1,000-yard rusher, Smith played in 11 games each season for the Spartans over his four years in college. As a sophomore in 1978, Smith had 115 carries for 772 yards and a career-best eight touchdowns. His junior season saw him rush for a career-best 972 yards on 204 carries for four touchdowns.

In his final year of college football, Smith rushed for 667 yards on 154 attempts for five trips to pay dirt. During his four years with the Spartans, Smith had 524 attempts for 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns. He ranks in the top 15 in Spartans history in all three categories and is ninth all time in total yards from scrimmage with 3,231.

Overall, Smith played for Michigan State during a relatively down part of the program’s history. Though the Spartans finished No. 12 in the 1978 AP Poll, Michigan State was still in the midst of a 19-year bowl drought, although bowl berths were much harder to come by in the 1970s. Regardless, Smith’s body of work over four years has stood the test of time and is good enough to have him cracking this top-15 all-time list.