Before Kenneth Walker III completed the proverbial match made in heaven by transferring to Michigan State, MSU fans didn’t know what to expect out of the running backs group in 2021.
We didn’t know much at all about the Wake Forest transfer garnering most of the chatter on the offensive side of the ball, the status of Elijah Collins continuing to recover from COVID-19 impediments or the prospects of former four-star Auburn running back Harold Joiner III attempting to crack the rotation after also transferring into Michigan State.
Walker evidently filled many of the voids that troubled the Spartans’ offense in head coach Mel Tucker’s first season at MSU in 2020, particularly in the continually rotating offensive line in front of him. A Doak Walker coronation, once-in-a-lifetime five-score triumph over Michigan and 1,636 yards later, Walker is off to playing for the Seattle Seahawks on Sundays after one full season with the Spartans.
In redshirt junior Payton Thorne’s words following the spring game, “(Kenneth Walker) is a guy that you’re not going to see every day. He’s the best player I’ve probably ever seen. He possesses the skill set that you really don’t see very often.
“Our offense is going to change a little bit, and the play might not change, but the way we execute might change.”
Now the halfback position is one of the more contentious groups to figure out ahead of the 2022 season, especially with upperclassmen Thorne, Jayden Reed and Xavier Henderson returning to anchor their respective position groups.
That is not to say that the running back group is devoid of talent or depth, though.
Tucker is a prime example of a coach who fully leveraged the novel transfer portal to his advantage. The program displayed a state of disarray as seemingly half the roster entered portal ahead of his first season. He obviously found the best available player at a position of need in Walker and just maybe pioneered a model to follow for the coming years, creating a free agent destination of sorts for talented running back transfers.
Jalen Berger announced his transfer to MSU in November and enrolled in January as a redshirt sophomore (retaining four more seasons of eligibility with COVID-waiver from 2020 and a redshirt in 2021) following seven games at Wisconsin that produced 389 yards and three rushing scores.
A former four-star recruit from Ramsey, New Jersey, Berger garnered the first snaps of any running back in Michigan State’s spring game. If that served as an indicator at the time, Berger made a strong impression in a few short months on campus.
Jarek Broussard also presents intriguing upside out of the transfer portal after winning the 2020 Pac-12 offensive Player of the Year honors. A former Colorado Buffalo (who played under Mel Tucker in 2019, but missed the season due to injury), Broussard racked up 895 yards rushing, while averaging 5.7 per carry and scoring five touchdowns in an abbreviated season in Boulder in 2020.
He then compiled 661 additional yards and two more touchdowns as a sophomore in 2021. It’ll be intriguing to follow how Broussard factors into the mix after joining the program in May. It is probably a good bet to expect Broussard and Berger to split carries in 2022.
Harold Joiner III, an Auburn transfer in 2021 and another former four-star prospect, saw mostly passing-down snaps in his first season at MSU. He is yet to come into his own after transferring from his home state of Alabama, as he ran for just 43 yards on 13 attempts last season. His physical attributes are evident, though, as he stands at 6-feet-4-inches tall and 215 pounds. It will be interesting to see if Joiner can garner any snaps outside of rotational rushes and pass-protection plays.
Former starters/possible rotational backs
Jordan Simmons headlines the experienced runners on the roster after leading the Spartans in rushing in a largely forgettable 2020 season. Even as that season was abbreviated due to COVID-19, yards on the ground were very hard to come by for the Spartans, as Simmons only tallied 219 yards without a score as a the lead back.
Simmons did resume his starting duties in the Peach Bowl with Walker forgoing the contest to prepare for the NFL Draft. Simmons ran for just 23 yards on 16 carries in the win over Pittsburgh.
Elijah Collins — once the sole bright spot in an antiquated offense, almost eclipsing 1,000 yards (988 yards on 4.5 per carry) in Mark Dantonio’s final season — has yet to regain his redshirt freshman form of 2019 for a myriad of reasons. Most notably, as mentioned earlier, the now redshirt senior out U of D Jesuit battled lingering effects of COVID-19 throughout 2020 before working through injuries in 2021. His 2019 showing was impressive despite the offense lacking any complements to the rushing attack, so perhaps a healthy and experienced Collins is due to regain some first-team snaps. But it is a crowded backfield.
Aside from its pair of transfers, MSU’s most intriguing running back in discussion heading into the fall may very well be Oak Park product Davion Primm. Tucker, who is generally conservative when discussing his team with the media, said “I’d keep an eye on Primm,” when commenting on the running back position earlier in the spring. Primm, a redshirt freshman, displayed some upside as I’d argue he made the biggest impact in the spring game aside from Berger. Primm flashed his pass-catching ability on checkdowns and routes out of the backfield.
The Spartans also have junior running back Caleb Wolf on the roster. Wolf joined the Spartans as a walk-on in 2021. He is not likely to factor into the rotation in 2022.
What’s happened from the spring game to this point, and what will happen between now and September, will likely be mostly kept under wraps, per usual with Tucker. Following the spring game, Reed — the redshirt senior wide receiver — voiced confidence for the prospects of MSU’s backfield.
“We’ve got transfers coming in,” Reed said. “We’ll have play-makers out there. We’ve got play-makers everywhere. We’ll be just fine going into next year.”