Each week heading into the fall football season for MSU, The State News will be taking a look into each position group on Mel Tucker’s roster as the Spartans prepare for their third season under the Tucker regime. In this edition, Sam Sklar dives into who may fill the shoes of Kenneth Walker III.
Life without Kenneth Walker III. That’s the reality and big question mark for Michigan State.
Walker brought magic to Michigan State’s offense. He hit home runs when the team needed it most, all the way to 11 wins, a Walter Camp National Player of the Year and a Doak Walker Award winner.
A player like Walker is hard to replace, especially on an immediate basis for a team tagged as a rebuilding one just one spring ago.
An elevation in redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne’s game could be the next step toward keeping the MSU offense that scored 31.8 points per game last year afloat, however offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said this spring that the offense will still bury its roots in the running game.
“That's what our program is, the physicality that Coach Tuck(er) wants,” Johnson said. “That relentless approach, that non-stop high velocity is what he's looking for and I think it still starts there. I think it comes with the brand of football, the physicality, so it will still start there.”
The Spartans utilized the transfer portal again to bring in a pair of potential replacements for Walker and it's likely that a backfield committee is used to divvy up the carries. It’s the opposite of last year’s offense, but when executed well, like Michigan did last year, for example, it can cater to each running back’s strength.
Here’s a look at what the running back pecking order may look like this fall:
The first of two transfer running backs brought to East Lansing, Broussard wasn’t even on campus for spring practices. But given his production at Colorado, the starting job may still be his to lose.
He was named the 2020 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, rushing for 895 yards and five touchdowns in just six games. Broussard then followed it up with a less productive, 661 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns, albeit with 14 fewer carries in five more games for a four-win team.
Better yet, he is a familiar face to the Michigan State coaching staff. Broussard was with Colorado during his injured redshirt freshman year in 2019, the year Tucker, Johnson and offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic were also at Colorado.
The keys won’t just be handed to him, but his track record makes him a favorite to be an integral part of MSU’s run game next fall.
The other transfer back, Berger committed to Michigan State early and joined the team for spring practices.
Talent hasn’t been a question for the four-star high school recruit. Rather, behavioral issues got him dismissed from his redshirt freshman year at Wisconsin in mid-October and one month later, he committed to MSU. In seven games for the Badgers, Berger rushed for 389 yards and three touchdowns.
Berger was a tad banged up heading into spring camp but appeared to make strong strides by spring’s end. In the team’s second spring scrimmage, he popped a long run that caught Tucker and new running backs coach Effrem Reed’s attention.
His game experience at the college level is sporadic, but if he’s able to stay on the field and make progress in practice, Berger could have a hefty stake in the running back timeshare.
The ‘player alert’ of the spring, Davion Primm was the talk of spring camp.
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A redshirt freshman, Primm didn’t appear to be in line to see much of the field given the plenty of veteran running backs on the roster. But based on how people around the team talked about him, it sounds like Primm has asserted himself into the rotation for next year.
“I’d keep my eye on Primm. He’s tough,” Tucker said midway through the spring.
“We did a player alert segment in our team meeting for Primm,” Tucker said two weeks later. “He made a guy miss in the hole so I showed it to the team.”
It certainly doesn’t mean he’s a star. Nor does it even mean he will get consistent playing time in the fall. But it does mean Primm is a surprise name to keep an eye on.
Joiner returns for his redshirt senior and second season with Michigan State after joining as a transfer from Auburn.
His large 6-foot-4 frame carved him an immediate role on special teams, where he led the team in tackles. He will likely continue to earn reps with the special teams unit given his success in 2021.
Joiner also served as the main third-down running back for Michigan State, seeing his snap count increase as the season progressed. By the end of the year, Joiner accumulated 86 offensive snaps, equating to 13 carries for 43 yards and five catches for 35 yards.
He has a belonging on this team. However, it’s difficult to imagine Joiner receiving a significant bump in his offensive snaps.
The Spartans’ leading rusher in 2020 with a comical 219 yards, Simmons took a backseat to Walker and served as his primary backup. He was nothing special in 2021, carrying 70 times for 278 yards at a hair under four yards per carry.
When Walker opted out of the Peach Bowl, Simmons earned the game’s starting job but put up a 16-carry, 23-yard dud against a solid Pittsburgh front-seven versus a not fully healthy MSU offensive line. It was a huge opportunity for him but did not go as hoped.
Perhaps the transfer portal was an option for Simmons to find a team with more easily-obtainable touches to dish out. Instead, Simmons elected to stay put in East Lansing where he is facing an uphill battle to find the field.
Once upon a time, Elijah Collins was one of the top running backs in the Big Ten. That was his redshirt freshman season in 2019 when he ran for 988 yards in Mark Dantonio’s final season.
Since the new regime took over, Collins hasn’t been the same dynamic rusher that he once projected to be. A bout with COVID-19 in 2020 led to a difficult redshirt sophomore season. He then rebounded from an efficiency standpoint in 2021, but was buried in the rep chart and received just 18 carries for 102 yards.
Collins is a fan favorite who always gets a few extra hoots and hollers whenever he enters the game. A return to form for his redshirt senior season would be quite the story.
A junior, Caleb Wolf walked onto the team during the 2021 season and did not receive any game action.
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