CHICAGO – As elusive as he is, it seems Michigan State running back Javon Ringer just can't escape.
Juke left. Sweep right. Speed up. Slow down. Reverse his field. It doesn't matter.
Someone is always there.
Not to tackle him, but to question him.
"Everywhere I walk around in Michigan, every day people will ask me about the Notre Dame game," Ringer said Wednesday. "I can't get away from it."
Remember the Notre Dame game, the one Spartans fans won't let Ringer and his teammates forget? Michigan State dominated play for three quarters then fell apart in the fourth to lose 40-37.
That loss started a collapse which has almost become an annual rite in East Lansing. The Spartans lost seven of their next eight games and consequently coach John L. Smith lost his job.
That led to the hiring of then-Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio, a no-nonsense type who immediately sought to foster a climate of change.
"What I have tried to say since I've come to Michigan State is that change affects everybody," Dantonio said. "Change is tough. It has a way to make you go through some trials and tribulations, and it's the same way at Michigan State."
No individual may be affected more by Dantonio's changes than Ringer. The running back expects to have a greater role in the new offense than he did in Smith's system. If trials and tribulations come with that, Ringer welcomes them with as much enthusiasm as he welcomes the additional carries that he thinks are sure to come.
Last season Ringer only had 86 carries, though injuries were obviously a factor in that low total. However, when healthy Ringer never carried more than 16 times. When he does get the ball, he has been productive. He averaged 5.8 yards per attempt last year and has averaged 6.3 yards per attempt for his career.
"I probably had less carries than anybody in the Big Ten," Ringer said. "I'd get eight to 10 carries a game, and other running backs are getting 20 to 25. Hopefully, now I can get that many carries. This year we're going to have a more run-based offense. We're going to establish the run first. I'm finally going to have the football now."
Ringer, a 5-foot-9, 200-pound darter, admits to being envious of backs like Michigan's Mike Hart and Wisconsin's P.J. Hill. Hart never had fewer than 17 carries in a game and had 318 attempts last season. Hill carried the ball 311 times.
That's about four-times as many carries as Ringer, who had a better average per carry than both of them.
Even in a new offensive system Ringer won't get all the carries. He'll have to share the wealth with powerful 6-foot, 255-pound Jehuu Caulcrick, who rushed for 426 yards on 108 carries last season.
That doesn't bother Ringer, though. He wants to win more than anything.
"You put the team first," he said. "But I'm also sitting back and looking at the other backs and thinking, 'I could do that.' P.J. and Mike get 30 carries a game. I'd like to show I can be that kind of back."
That would be a great benefit to junior Brian Hoyer, who will replace Drew Stanton at quarterback. Hoyer is a solid passer who threw for 863 yards and four touchdowns last season as Stanton's understudy, so the Spartans aren't too concerned about performance at that position.
Still, a good running game always helps the quarterback.
It helps the defense, too.
Michigan State allowed an average of 28.4 points per game in 2006 to rank 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense. An improved running game should increase the Spartans' time of possession and keep the defense better rested.
"We won't accept a soft defense," Dantonio said. "Where I've been and where I come from we played well on defense. I expect that to continue."
Perhaps all the changes – the coach, the offense and expectations on the defense – will change Michigan State's luck.
Ringer certainly hopes so.
"We've been so close and then we do stupid things – penalties, bad calls, we didn't execute," he said. "It's frustrating when you get that close. Hopefully, this year will be a lot different for us."
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.