When he was a redshirt freshman at Michigan State, Jeremy Langford was playing a weekly role on special teams as a defensive back. Lined up in the Spartans offensive backfield was Le'Veon Bell. The upperclassman came within 53 yards of his first 1,000-yard rushing season as a sophomore.
Bell followed it up with nearly 1,800 rushing yards as a junior before becoming a second-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013. Langford, who as a sophomore made the transition to running back, would become Bell's successor as the Spartans' feature back. After two very productive seasons for Michigan State, Langford now hopes to duplicate his success in the NFL.
Langford took the time to observe Bell's game live while they were teammates for two seasons (2011-2012). After Bell left for the NFL Langford didn't coast and assume he had the starting tailback role locked up in head coach Mark Dantonio's offense. Instead he went to the film room to see what parts of Bell's game he could incorporate into his own playing style.
"When he left, I watched his previous games, I learned a lot," said Langford of Bell. "How he ran the ball, his patience … that's what he does a good job of, not being worried about people's criticism of him being a big back and being too patient. He runs the same way all the time; he's very patient."
When Bell came out in the 2013 draft class he was seen by some NFL clubs as too patient and too slow. His 4.6 40-time kept him out of the first round, but his production was difficult to ignore along with his well-rounded game. The Pittsburgh Steelers were all too happy to take him with the 48th overall pick.
Ironically, Langford is another Michigan State back, who is projected to go in round two or three in what is seen as a very deep class of rushers. Bell was the second back off the board two years ago.
Langford has been overshadowed by other backs in his class, including a few from his own conference. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Indiana's Tevin Coleman and Minnesota's David Cobb all got more publicity than Langford. Despite a 1,522-yard season that included 22 touchdowns, Langford was not even named to the first or second-team All-Big Ten squads in 2014.
The Michigan State back took the lack of recognition in stride.
"I feel like I had a successful year, my team went 10-2," said Langford. "It all works itself out. I've been the underdog my whole career."
Heading into his NFL combine workout Langford said he wanted to let his performance on the field do the talking.
"Some may know about my ability to hit the hole and my speed," he said prior to his workout.
They do now.
At 6-1 and 208 pounds, Langford clocked a 4.42 40-time at the combine, the fastest among running backs. He also had a 34-and-a-half-inch vertical and a solid nine-foot eight-inch broad jump. He didn't bench press due to a healing AC joint in his shoulder.
Power however, is of little concern to most NFL scouts. Langford over the past two seasons has shown more than enough contact balance and gained yards after initial contact time and again to showcase his ability to fight through arm tackles and drive the pile. He also has a nose for the end zone as evidenced by his 41 touchdowns his last two years.
"The Big 10's a physical conference," he said. "Teams like to run the ball and stop the run. We ran a pro-style offense, so we did a lot of things NFL-like."
Langford also has a good set of hands, which he put on display at his pro day last month. Again recognizing his predecessor Bell's diverse skill set, Langford committed himself to develop a well-rounded game.
"I think my versatility is a strength," he said. "Being able to catch the ball out of the backfield is huge in the NFL, to be a three-down back. I feel I can run the ball between the tackles and get the short yards."
"That's a hard thing to deal with from a defensive perspective. When you have power and hands and can play all three downs that's a dangerous combination." said former NFL GM and current ESPN NFL analyst Mark Dominik. "Those guys are the guys that I think the league is begging for again."
Langford intends to be just that for whatever team that drafts him.