With a crowded backfield and four-star Antonio Williams pledged to join it, can Ohio State hang on to Kareem Walker, the top running back in the recruiting class of 2015?
[Editor's note: Walker decommitted from Ohio State hours after this story was posted.]
In the lead up to National Signing Day this year, Ohio State and Michigan were engaged in a recruiting battle over one of the nation’s top running backs. Mike Weber had committed to the Buckeyes in December after previously pledging to the Wolverines, but Michigan was making a push to land the Cass Tech (Mich.) standout. It was framed as an important fight between two longtime rivals and their respective coaches, Urban Meyer and the newly hired Jim Harbaugh. In the end, Weber decided to stick with Ohio State, only to watch running backs coach Stan Drayton leave for the Chicago Bears the next day.
While the Weber saga culminated in early February, speculation over the intentions of Ohio State’s top running back in the class of 2016 arose months earlier in the recruiting cycle. Kareem Walker memorably announced his commitment to the Buckeyes during halftime of their College Football Playoff championship game victory over Oregon. At the time Walker “felt like Ohio State was the place for me,” he says now. Though most Buckeyes fans were focused on their team’s performance against the Ducks, Walker represented a massive recruiting victory, a bonus on a night spent celebrating college football’s biggest prize.
In securing a pledge from Walker, the No. 1 running back in the class of 2016, according to Rivals.com, Ohio State was adding a transcendent talent to a position at which it already boasts a veritable A-lister in Ezekiel Elliott. Since then, the Buckeyes have compiled the nation’s top recruiting class, earning commitments from 10 four-star prospects and another five-star.
Yet now there is uncertainty over whether Walker, the second most highly rated player in the class—behind St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High defensive end Nick Bosa, the brother of sophomore stud Joey Bosa—could eventually back away from Ohio State in favor of a different program.
Walker plans to take all of his official visits, for which schools can cover expenses but can only take place after the first day of a recruit’s senior year classes. His first trip, to Michigan on the weekend of Oct. 10, stirred unease among Buckeyes fans dreading the prospect of losing their bell-cow back of the future to That School Up North. It’s not hard to understand the angst: Walker is close with Wolverines defensive back Jabrill Peppers, who starred at Paramus Catholic (N.J.) High. “That’s like my big brother, honestly,” Walker says. He’s also familiar with former Paramus Catholic coach Chris Partridge, who Michigan hired to a recruiting operations position in January.
In a tweet that recalled Harbaugh’s cryptic reference to Ohio State after Drayton’s departure to the NFL, Partridge seemed to subtly prod the Buckeyes after Walker’s visit to Ann Arbor last month when he posted the following to his account: “Just remembered a great quote. ‘A person is only insecure about losing someone when they know someone else can treat them better.’” Meanwhile, four-star wide receiver Ahmir Mitchell, one of three players from New Jersey committed to the Wolverines in the class of 2016—in addition to four-star wide receiver Brad Hawkins Jr. and four-star defensive end Ron Johnson—clearly wants Walker to join the group:
For his part, Walker says he enjoyed the visit to Ann Arbor, during which he took in Michigan’s most dominant performance of the season, a 38–0 romp of Northwestern. But Walker pushes back against the notion that he’s wavering on his pledge to the Buckeyes. He says he has long wanted to take official visits, and that he’s merely trying to confirm that Ohio State is his best option. “It’s just to reaffirm I’m making the correct decision for me, for my family,” Walker says. “I just want to put myself in the best position to be successful. There’s still no doubt that the coaching staff at Ohio State could get me to where I need to be.”
More generally, like many recruits, Walker views official visits as a chance to experience other campuses. “I definitely wanted to take my visits and see other places in the world and I could do it taking my official visits, so why not?” he says. Asked last week whether he is 100% committed to Ohio State, Walker says, “Yeah, I’ve been saying that.” Still, those comments—as well as a statement Walker released last month saying he was “done answering media questions pertaining to my recruitment and commitment”—won’t cease concerns over the possibility that he could change course at some point over the next three months.
A week after Walker’s trip to Michigan, another running back prospect in the class of 2016, Antonio Williams, issued a verbal commitment to the Buckeyes. Williams had been recruited by Ohio State’s current running backs coach, Tony Alford, when he was at Notre Dame and said he received a scholarship offer from the Buckeyes last year. Though the North Stanly (N.C.) High star pledged to Wisconsin in early December, he remembers Meyer telling him in a phone conversation around that time, “Antonio, promise me you won’t forget about us.” Williams says now, “I think that was kind of a foreshadowing.”
He stayed in touch with Alford after he committed to the Badgers, he says, though the two didn’t really discuss recruiting. Last month Williams began questioning his commitment to Wisconsin, as “something was telling me to look around a little bit.” Then Alford contacted Williams to gauge his interest in Ohio State. Williams decommitted from Wisconsin and took an unofficial visit to Columbus. He says he was drawn to the Buckeyes’ winning tradition, as well as the fact that the program is closer to his home than Wisconsin, among other factors.
Williams says he did not discuss other recruits in depth with Ohio State and that the Buckeyes are recruiting him to be “that every-down back.” It would not really matter to Williams if Ohio State took two running backs in the same class, he says, because he embraces competition. “No matter what happens, you’re always going to have to compete, you’re always going to have to come into a situation where there are other guys that have been there longer than you have trying to do what you’re trying to do,” says Williams, adding that, “I’m going to go in there and I’m going to do what I have to do and earn what I think I can earn.”
From the outside, it’s tempting to point to Williams’s commitment and Walker’s visits to other schools, and wonder whether Walker might be on the verge of reopening his recruitment. But Walker says he was not shocked that Ohio State pursued another player at his position and, like Williams, does not shy away from the prospect of competing with another back. “The last thing [I’m] scared of is competition—that’s the last thing I’m scared of,” Walker says. “That’s not a worry to me at all … They could bring in 10 guys. Any college could bring in 10 guys, and I’m going to stand out regardless of who they bring in.”
Though NCAA rules prohibit coaches from commenting on unsigned prospects, Meyer offered a window into his approach for a situation like the one involving Walker and Williams on the Big Ten conference call last month. Asked how it affects a program’s recruiting when a “commitment really isn’t a commitment,” Meyer said, “As long as they look around, you just gotta have a Plan B ready.” That’s not to suggest Williams would be any kind of consolation prize if Walker were to renege on his pledge. Like Walker, Williams is considered among the top senior running backs in the nation.
Jeremy Birmingham, who covers recruiting for the Ohio State website ElevenWarriors.com, says Williams is the more physical runner while Walker possesses the ability to break big plays in the open field. “I would definitely think, if you’re comparing to recent Ohio State backs, Williams is much more of the Carlos Hyde type of back. He’s going to hit you at that three-, four-yard mark and drag you forward for a yard or two,” Birmingham says. “Whereas with Walker, he’s much more in the Ezekiel Elliott mold, which is if he gets to that six-, seven-yard mark and you haven’t hit him, there’s a very good chance he’s going to take it to the house.”
Assuming Elliott, a true junior, leaves for the NFL after this season (SI.com projects him as a first-round pick in its latest mock draft) Williams and Walker would enter a backfield that also includes Weber—who has not logged a carry this season after suffering a torn meniscus in August—as well as upperclassmen Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball, who have been reduced to limited workloads while backing up Elliott. While Walker and Williams will need some time to learn the offense, it’s entirely possible that both players, who plan to enroll in college early, could push for touches right away.
Ohio State also has secured a commitment from DeMario McCall, a four-star prospect who is listed as an athlete by Rivals.com. Unlike Walker or Williams, though, McCall projects as an H-back, which involves both taking handoffs and catching passes. The Buckeyes have used converted quarterback Braxton Miller at the position this season, and Meyer deployed Percy Harvin to great effect at H-back during his stint at Florida. Ohio State previously counted another potential H-back in its 2016 recruiting class in George Hill—who also is listed as an athlete—but he decommitted last month.
For now, Buckeyes supporters are wracked with concern that Walker could elect do the same. “It’s caused a lot of anxiety among the Ohio State fan base,” says Marc Givler, a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com affiliate BuckeyeGrove.com. That feeling may linger for a while. Walker has visits set for Alabama, Arizona State, Ole Miss and Ohio State. He says dates for those trips have not been finalized but at this point knows he plans to see Columbus last. That should encourage Ohio State fans. From Walker’s point of view, their apprehension is overblown. “Nothing really changed,” he says.