Jalen Berger takes 'huge step forward' in Michigan State football's RB battle

EAST LANSING — Replacing Kenneth Walker III might take some time to sort itself out. New Michigan State football running backs coach Effrem Reed admitted as much Thursday.

But Reed also said he is beginning to see clarity. And newcomer Jalen Berger might be making a move like Walker did a year ago when he transferred in.

“We've had a little separation the past two weeks or so, where guys are starting to take off because they're starting to slow things down and understand,” Reed said Thursday. “I think the last scrimmage, Jalen Berger took a huge step forward because he actually got out there, he got loose, he made plays, he made people miss. He finished on top — that's what we talk about all the time, fall forward and finish on top. And I thought he did a good job out of the backfield catching the football as well.”

Michigan State's Jalen Berger runs the ball during practice on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, at the indoor football facility in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Jalen Berger runs the ball during practice on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, at the indoor football facility in East Lansing.

STAYING IN-HOUSE: Why RB Davion Primm could be a darkhorse candidate to replace Walker

BIG TEN INSIDER: Football, basketball divided on impact of transfer portal. But why?

That doesn’t mean the Wisconsin transfer has the job yet, particularly with an already crowded backfield — featuring Elijah Collins, Harold Joiner, Jordon Simmons and Davion Primm — getting more competition this summer with the arrival of Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard. However, it is a major step toward finding a replacement for Walker.

That is, if such a player exists.

Walker wrapped up the starting job last spring after his transfer from Wake Forest, then produced at an elite level in the fall, entering the MSU record books and winning both the Doak Walker Award (as the nation’s best running back) and the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award. He entered the NFL draft after finishing second in the nation — and first among Power Five players — at 1,636 rushing yards and 136.3 yards per game, and his 18 rushing touchdowns tied for eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

KEN-DO ATTITUDE: Walker III's path to NFL will be guided by a longtime MSU fan

Reed, who was an assistant to William Peagler last year before taking over when Peagler left for Florida, saw it right away with Walker.

“You can't replace a Doak Walker Award winner, it just doesn't happen,” Reed said. “Kenneth is a phenomenon. I love the guy to death. He's here now just walking around and getting ready for the draft, trying to be a regular guy. But the exciting part about the room we have right now is all the guys bring something different to the table.”

Reed sees Berger as a better receiving threat than Walker, one who “creates matchup issues for defenses.” In two seasons with the Badgers, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Berger ran for 389 yards on 84 carries with three touchdowns. He has four seasons of eligibility remaining after redshirting last season, with four appearances before entering the portal.

MSU coach Mel Tucker also said Berger turned heads last Thursday in the scrimmage.

“Guys popped a couple of runs, which was good to see,” Tucker said Monday. “Berger wasn't at full strength the first time we scrimmaged, so that was the first time I got a chance to really see him live, and he popped a couple of runs. And he looked good.”

Michigan State's Davion Primm, left, runs the ball as A.J. Kirk closes in during the Meet the Spartans open practice on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Davion Primm, left, runs the ball as A.J. Kirk closes in during the Meet the Spartans open practice on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

Primm, a redshirt freshman, has been among the most talked-about young players throughout the spring, which wraps up Saturday with a 2 p.m. open practice at Spartan Stadium that will be televised on Big Ten Network. The 6-0, 195-pound Oak Park native, a former three-star recruit, is this staff’s first running back recruited.

“The one thing that stands out the most about Davion, his body has changed a lot so he's able to endure a lot more,” Reed said. “But the mental aspect of the game, he understands it a lot more. He was able to slow it down, and he's slowing things out there on the field so he's able to process a lot more, and he's playing faster and making plays.

“As a young guy, you're always out there trying to speed up your footwork, speed up your eyes, when you don't really have to do all of that. He understands how plays are being blocked, where he fits into the pass game. So once he gets all those things and he's consistent with it, the sky's the limit for the kid. He's been doing a phenomenal job.”

Collins and Simmons both have starting experience at MSU as well as struggles at times.

Michigan State Spartans running back Jordon Simmons (22) runs the ball against the Maryland Terrapins during first half action Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021 at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan State Spartans running back Jordon Simmons (22) runs the ball against the Maryland Terrapins during first half action Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021 at Spartan Stadium.

Simmons, a 5-11, 195-pound junior, ran 54 times for 157 yards — a 2.9 yards-per-carry average — against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents last season as Walker’s backup. But against Football Championship Subdivision foe Youngstown State, he had a season-high 121 yards on 16 attempts. He has yet to score a rushing touchdown in 126 carries over two seasons.

Collins, who nearly ran for 1,000 yards in 2019, battled COVID in 2020 and struggled with injuries last season. The 6-1, 225-pound senior had 102 yards on 18 carries in seven games without a rushing touchdown a year ago, though he scored on a reception.

Michigan State running back Elijah Collins (24) celebrates a touchdown against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Michigan State running back Elijah Collins (24) celebrates a touchdown against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

With Walker’s ascent last year, Joiner — who transferred from Auburn — saw limited work: just 13 carries for 43 yards in his first year as a Spartan. The senior's 6-4, 215-pound frame provides a much different look than the others.

“Harold Joiner, if he masters third down, he does a really good job of putting himself in position to block people, and obviously he understands our protections as well,” Reed said. “Jordon Simmons is a downhill runner. Him and Elijah Collins, they both get the ball down here really well. …

“That's the most exciting part for me. You got a lot of guys who would do a lot of different things well. You get all those guys and you make their weaknesses a lot stronger, I think you'll have a successful group.”

Michigan State's running back Harold Joiner catches a pass during practice on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, at the indoor football facility in East Lansing.
Michigan State's running back Harold Joiner catches a pass during practice on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, at the indoor football facility in East Lansing.

The other returning running back, sophomore Donovan Eaglin, had six carries for 33 yards but his appearances in all 13 games were predominantly on special teams.

And when Broussard arrives, the Spartans will get a weapon that Reed feels can be “the same kind of player as Ken, but just not as big.” The 5-9, 185-poundwe, who played under Tucker in Boulder, ran for 1,474 yards and five TDs the past two seasons with the Buffaloes, winning Pac-12 offensive player of the year honors in 2020.

Colorado Buffaloes running back Jarek Broussard runs with the ball against the Arizona Wildcats on Dec. 5, 2020 in Tucson, Ariz.
Colorado Buffaloes running back Jarek Broussard runs with the ball against the Arizona Wildcats on Dec. 5, 2020 in Tucson, Ariz.

“He makes people miss,” Reed said of Broussard. “He wins his one-on-ones, and he does a good job of understanding the game. And he's played a lot of football as well.”

Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is getting all of them reps. Not because of how many running backs there are but due to the Spartans' lack of offensive linemen. The limited numbers in the trenches have forced MSU this spring to adjust practices to keep the seven healthy bodies fresh, and that puts a bit of a crimp into some of the things Reed wants to see and teach.

But he did not sound overly concerned, particularly with the experience most of his running backs possess.

“Just like a quarterback and the receiver, the timing aspect of routes and getting the ball out,” Reed said. “For us last year, Ken did a good job of taking the walkthroughs a lot more seriously than he did other settings just because he got his eyes right. He was able to get a feel of how guys are working to double teams, if they're being a lot more patient, maybe this guy's step is a little different. So I do think it plays a factor.

“But the good thing is you know you got some and fall camp to kind of correct those things when everybody gets back.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football: Jalen Berger starts to emerge in RB battle