LJ Scott's intriguing story has one chapter left at Michigan State; will it be a happy ending?
CHICAGO — Mark Dantonio didn’t bring LJ Scott to B1G Media Days because he was the most well-spoken player on the team.
The Michigan State running back is not as polished as teammate Khari Willis, who delivered the keynote speech at the B1G Kickoff Luncheon (and crushed it). Dantonio knew that Scott wasn’t likely always going to say what was politically correct, like MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke usually does.
In fact, while in Chicago, Scott stirred the pot by taking a page out of Mike Hart’s playbook and calling Michigan “our little sisters.”
It’s fair to say that Scott has not had the storybook career that many thought he would since his unforgettable reach across the goal line to win the 2015 B1G Championship. The former blue-chip recruit struggled to establish himself as a three-down back, he dealt with fumble issues that plagued the start of his junior season and he was arrested for driving on a suspended license (a charge he faced seven times).
Scott was far from the typical player representative at B1G Media Days, and Dantonio knew that. When I asked the Spartans coach about Scott’s presence in Chicago, he gave me an answer that was anything but canned.
“For LJ, I wanted him to see the size, the scope of the Big Ten Conference and understand what playing at Michigan State and playing in this conference means,” Dantonio said. “He’s been extremely successful. He made a statement that he was coming back immediately after our bowl game…and I think that warranted this opportunity.
“He’s done a nice job academically. He’s played for us for four years. There’s no question that he’s a guy that is an outstanding football player. And I wanted to see him grow as a person. I think this is an opportunity for growth to be able to listen stand up here and talk to people. It’s something that he’s going to have to get to used to. And he does it at home obviously and he does it after games. But this is another scope.”
Well, that answers that question. There’s another question I have about Scott that I tried to get some intel on at B1G Media Days.
How will this story play out in his final season at East Lansing?
Scott’s two pinnacle moments of his career both came in the postseason. If the aforementioned B1G Championship run was supposed to be the burst-onto-the-scene moment to Scott’s career, his 110-yard, 2-touchdown performance in the 2017 Holiday Bowl was supposed to be his walk-off moment.
Instead, Scott announced after the game that he was returning to school for one more season.
MSU coach Mark Dantonio
“I don’t think his production has been as good as he wanted,” Lewerke said. “I think that was a main reason he wanted to come back was because he wanted to come back, work on that and put his stamp on Michigan State football and make his draft stock better.”
Scott’s draft stock wasn’t where he wanted it to be after he finished his 2017 season down in total yards and yards per carry from his sophomore season. The draft advisory board told Scott that he was looking right around the third round.
“I can’t settle for that,” Scott said.
Scott said that he actually had his mind made up about returning to East Lansing in the middle of the 2017 season. Part of that was because of the four fumbles in the first five games. Whether that was directly related to his offseason shoulder surgeries or not — Willis said Scott couldn’t lift his shoulder for 4-5 months — the Spartan tailback said that it wasn’t an excuse.
It was admittedly the low point of his career despite the fact that MSU was in the midst of a bounce-back season. His first nine games saw him exceed 90 rushing yards once. Despite clearly being the most talented back on MSU’s roster, Scott hit the 20-carry mark just twice in that stretch.
Add in the fumbles, not being 100 percent and the arrest, and it wasn’t the breakout season Scott hoped it would be. That’s why he was so willing to stick around in East Lansing.
“I’m happy I had another year to come back to fix those mistakes,” Scott said. “It’ll be a different L.J. this year.”
Talk to and about Scott now and the words that get thrown around are “growth” and “maturation.” What that’ll look like in 2018 remains to be seen.
While Scott admits “he still has something to prove,” his total career numbers are nothing to scoff at. He ranks 12th in MSU history with 2,591 rushing yards, and if he finally gets that 1,000-yard season he’s shooting for, he’ll finish his career among the top five rushers in program history.
Interestingly enough, a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season would propel Scott past Le’Veon Bell, the Spartan great who many used to compare him to. There’s something of Bell’s that Scott would rather have than career marks — carries.
“And I’d hope the coaches with trust me to carry a load like that,” Scott said.
It’s not likely that Scott will approach the 382 carries that Bell got in his final season at MSU, but all signs point to more work for the senior tailback.
MSU running back LJ Scott
No longer is he surrounded by veterans like Gerald Holmes and Madre London. Scott is finally the most experienced running back, which means he should finally get the workload he’s always wanted in an offense with 11 returning starters. That is, if he keeps Dantonio’s trust.
That hasn’t always been a given.
On the field, Scott has shown several instances of putting it all together. But quarter to quarter, week to week, season to season, he’s still trying to live up to his promising potential. Whether that’s just being able to physically handle the workload or holding onto the ball, there’s a reason that a player of Scott’s ability has only averaged 14 carries per contest.
There is, however, reason to believe that the coaching staff will put more faith in Scott than they ever have in 2018. For starters, he said he’s healthy and in great shape.
Mentally, he’s in as good of a place as he’s been since arriving at MSU. He recorded a personal best 3.5 GPA this past spring, and he talks about his desire to pursue a career in franchising if football doesn’t work out. As Dantonio hoped, Scott’s public speaking skills have improved, too. Teammates have seen that maturation.
“It’s just been fun watching him grow, not only as a player, but as a person more importantly,” Willis said.
Scott credits that to the Dantonio family, who have “helped him through a lot.” Dantonio’s wife, Becky, is Scott’s mentor. Scott said she’s been like his mother away from home, according to Scott. Their conversations are more about life than school or football.
Perhaps all of this will add up to that complete season that Scott’s been striving for. Maybe the 2018 version of Scott will close his MSU story the same way it started — doing whatever he can to push MSU to a B1G Championship and a Playoff berth. The ending is still his to write.
“He’s easily a first-round draft pick if he fulfills his potential,” Lewerke said.
Scott would definitely settle for that.