Elijah Collins could have left Michigan State whenever he wanted. After a breakout campaign in 2019, when he led the Spartans in rushing yards (988, fourth most in the Big Ten that year), he struggled the following season, tallying just 90 yards on 41 carries. Last year, transfer Kenneth Walker III surpassed him on the depth chart. As if that weren't enough, injuries forced Collins to miss five games. Even after Walker departed and took his immense talent to the NFL, it didn't become any easier for Collins. MSU welcomed two more transfer running backs earlier this year in Jarek Broussard and Jalen Berger.
Entering the fall, Collins was the Spartans' third-string option in the backfield.
Despite the adversity, Collins, a fifth-year senior from Detroit, said entering the transfer portal never crossed his mind.
"Why would I transfer? I didn't feel like I was excluded or I was erased," Collins said Tuesday. "I always felt like I had a chance and a shot. … And I've been doing everything I can to maximize that."
He did so last week at Maryland, finishing with a team high 36 yards on the ground, scoring the Spartans' only rushing touchdown in a 27-13 road loss. As one of the few bright spots in an otherwise deflating defeat — MSU's third straight overall, and second consecutive Big Ten setback — Collins said he's felt the support from friends, family and teammates, all expressing their wishes that he receives more playing time. He appreciates it.
He's also aware that support only goes so far.
"They want me in there bad. But that's out of my control," he said. "I only can do everything in my control, which is play as hard as I can every single rep and give my team the best opportunity to win."
His commitment to squeezing the most out of every chance that comes his way is the reason he's still in East Lansing.
Hard work second nature to Collins
Collins comes from a large family in Detroit. To support Collins, as well as his brothers and sisters, Gary and Elizabeth Collins clocked long hours. And multiple jobs. Gary worked in landscaping before retiring and moving into rental property management. Elizabeth, a hairstylist, once owned her own salon. Now she works from home and is a substitute teacher on the side.
Seeing his parents' boundless work ethic, Collins said, is what made him so determined to see it through with the Spartans.
"Each and every day, I (saw) them wake up and go to work, and it's like that's kind of how I look at myself," Collins said of his parents. "If anything, you just (have to) wake up and do the work, because some people are scared of working, afraid of it. … (They) run away from it.
"But my dad used to wake up every day, put his pants on one leg at a time, and boots, get his hard hat and go to work. Same thing with me putting my cleats on, pads and helmet. I gotta go to work."
It's impossible to miss.
“He just won’t stop," linebacker Ben VanSumeren said. "He never gives up. … He stayed consistent. He’s the same guy year round, no matter what’s going on with him.”
Quarterback Payton Thorne noticed the same thing, particularly after Berger and Broussard joined the program.
"I saw him the whole offseason, working his butt off …. the whole offseason, working as hard as he possibly could and pushing himself," Thorne said, "and that's why you're seeing him on the field."
His willpower also is second to none.
"He believes in himself. … I see it in him," receiver Jayden Reed said. "He's got that dog mentality. He's not just going to run away. He's going to compete, because he believes in himself."
What Collins showcased against the Terrapins is what he exhibits every practice, coach Mel Tucker says. His consistency during the week paid dividends in the form of more snaps last Saturday.
"He's earned the opportunity to go into the game, and when he's gone into the game, he's done well," Tucker said, before going on to praise all the positive attributes Collins possesses. "He has a really good attitude. He works really hard. He's a great teammate. He does an excellent job on special teams. So he's very unselfish. And he's hungry."
"If a guy is hungry, he's going to try to do everything he can to eat. So that's my approach in practice," Collins said. "Every rep, even if you're going against the scout (team defense), I'm hungry for it, because you don't get too many, especially with such a talented running back room. … So you've got to take the most out of every single rep."
Game no longer 'a blur' for older, wiser Collins
It might be hard for an outsider to understand.
But Collins vows he's a far better, more complete player than he was during his sterling 2019 season. While he might not match — much less exceed — his numbers from three years ago, where the gains have occurred, he said, are in his mind.
Yes, Collins had a magical redshirt freshman season. Yet thinking back on that time, he admits he was "a little kid." Immature. Still learning who he was as a person. And a football player.
With the benefit of time, and experience, he's "sharpened his tools" to become better than ever.
"That's probably one of the biggest things: being able to really slow the game down and mentally prepare and know what you're doing out there, versus being a freshman and just being out there," he said. "Literally, that's how it felt sometimes. Like you know the game plan. You know the plays you have to run. But things are moving so fast, you're just kind of out there."
He boasts he couldn't be more at ease now.
"The game is in front of me," he said. "It's not so much a blur."
Trying to replace No. 9
While Collins claims he's improved year over year, the Spartans have regressed. At least in the win column. MSU already has more losses through five games this fall than it did in 13 contests during last year's 11-2 campaign.
Much of the Spartans' success last season, of course, centered around Walker. The one-year-transfer wonder whose college career began at Wake Forest, Walker was one of the nation's best running backs in 2021, putting together a season for the ages.
Walker rushed for 1,636 yards, the fourth-best single-season tally by a Spartan, trailing only Lorenzo White (2,066 in 1985), Le’Veon Bell (1,793 in 2012) and Javon Ringer (1,673 in 2008).
PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE: Where does Kenneth Walker III rank among MSU's top 50 football players all-time?
The Spartans' ground game, while not grounding to a halt, hasn't been nearly as fruitful, or steady, this fall.
Despite praising Walker at every turn — repeatedly saying it was a "blessing" to play alongside him last year, touting his production and mentioning the joy he takes in seeing his former teammate playing for the Seattle Seahawks — Collins despises the notion that No. 9 was the entire offense last year.
"He was a very productive individual. He did a lot on the field for us," Collins said. "Him being the whole offense? That's a lot to say. … He (had) a very big role on our team, but he wasn't the whole team. You still need somebody to hand off the ball. You still need people to block. You still need receivers to catch. You can put nine people in the box and then it's a lot harder to run the ball. So you've got to spread the ball around a little bit, throw the ball.
"But I do give a lot of credit to Ken, because he came in every single day and worked. He showed that in practice, during camp and throughout the whole season. So he's a dog, you know what I'm saying? I'm not taking (any) credit away from him, because he deserves it."
Collins might not be Walker. Few occupy that rarified air. But he knows who he is.
"I've just been trying to do that as much as I can — fill my role," Collins said. "Honestly, the time will come. And time will tell. It's a true test."
Just like his parents, he won't stop working until he passes that examination.
"Sometimes you've got to do things that are necessary, that you might not like to do or might not seem the easiest," Collins said. "But it has to get done."
Contact Ryan Black at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RyanABlack.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: MSU football: Running back Elijah Collins never pondered transferring