Michigan State looking for Walker replacements this spring

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FILE – Michigan State running back Elijah Collins, left, runs for a touchdown against Youngstown State’s Vinny Gentile (54) during the second quarter of a college football game at the NCAA on September 11, 2021, in East Lansing, Michigan. Collins is among the candidates to fill the void left by the departure of Kenneth Walker III. (AP Photo/Al Goldis, File)

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Michigan State relied heavily on Kenneth Walker III during their turnaround season, handing him the ball 22 times per game with great success.

This spring and fall, someone else will have to run the ball for the Spartans because Walker skipped his senior season to enter the NFL Draft. The top candidates for the role may be a mystery until the season begins Sept. 2 against Western Michigan.

When spring drills wrap up Saturday, the lack of healthy offensive linemen led coach Mel Tucker to choose to have a practice instead of a game with fans in the stands at Spartan Stadium.

“I would love to be able to play a traditional game if we could,” said Tucker, who won the Big Ten Coach of the Year award last season. “But our numbers won’t allow us to do that.”

Walker had stunning numbers in a breakout season.

He ranked second in the FBS with 1,636 yards and was among the nation’s leaders with 19 touchdowns. The Wake Forest transfer became the first Spartan to win the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s leading running back, was the Associated Press Big Ten co-offensive player of the year and finished sixth in the vote for the Heisman Trophy.

There’s no doubt that Walker was the key player who helped Tucker go from a 2-5 record in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season in his first year to winning 11 games and finishing n No. 9 of the AP Top 25.

Walker left the program before the Peach Bowl, leaving a huge hole to fill behind a rebuilt offensive line that Tucker says is “thin.”

There’s no shortage of motivated running backs to make the most of the opportunity to share the runs Walker left behind.

Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger made an impression early this spring with elusive moves that made it difficult for the defense to bring him down.

“Berger, he emerged,” Tucker said.

Davion Primm, who wore a redshirt as a freshman last season, also caught Tucker’s eye.

“I’m not putting him in the Hall of Fame or anything,” Tucker said. “You ask about players who have improved. He blinks.”

Elijah Collins, who rushed for 988 yards in 2019, and Jordon Simmons, who rushed for 70 yards for 278 yards last season, have the most experience among returning backfielders.

Michigan State is returning Payton Thorne, a standout starter at quarterback, and that should help the running game by forcing defenses to respect the pass. Thorne set a school record in a season with 27 touchdown passes last year, beating Kirk Cousins’ mark, and is among the all-time leaders with 3,414 passing yards and passing efficiency.

Don’t expect Michigan State to turn into a passing-happy team.

“We’re always going to base things starting with the running game,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “We have to do it. That’s what our program is, the physique that Coach Tuck wants.”

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