Coming off of a profoundly unsuccessful 2020 on the offensive side of the ball, it was an unbelievable breath of fresh air when, on the first snap from scrimmage in Evanston, Kenneth Walker III took the handoff, bounced off a Northwestern linebacker, and hit the jets for an 80-yard touchdown. By the time the final whistle sounded, Walker had piled up 264 yards and 4 touchdowns against a defense that still had some residual credibility at that point.
Walker ran wild for most of the year, held in check only by Indiana and Nebraska and withdrawn by the coaching staff against Youngstown State and Ohio State with results out of hand (albeit in different directions). Snubbed for a Heisman invite in favor of a certain player whose defensive unit Walker ran wild against, Kenneth had to settle for the Doak Walker and Walter Camp awards and went off to the draft, going to the Seahawks in the 2nd round.
He’s not the only loss for the Spartan offense. #2 WR Jalen Nailor (37 rec, 695 yards, 6 TD) and H-back Connor Heyward (35 rec, 530 yards, 2 TD, a whole bunch of excellent blocks) also move on and became late-round NFL picks, as did OT AJ Arcuri. Arcuri and fellow linemen Kevin Jarvis, Luke Campbell, and Matt Allen’s departures deplete a ton of experience from the offensive line.
Still, aside from the uncertainty at running back after Walker, it’s hard not to see possibly greater upside for this offense. The line returns three very experienced probable-starters in LT Jarrett Horst, LG JD Duplain, and C Matt Samac. Washington State transfer Brian Greene probably steps right into the starting lineup, perhaps in some combo with Samac at the C and RG spots. RT Spencer Brown made his first career start in the Peach Bowl and is probably the guy there.
Out wide, top receiver and return ace Jayden Reed could easily surpass his 59/1,026/10 line last year. Tre Mosley and Montorie Foster are the veterans likely to step into larger roles, but the first couple classes of Tucker’s receivers such as Keon Coleman and true freshmen Germie Bernard and Antonio Gates Jr. will all jockey for snaps. TEs Maliq Carr and Illinois import Daniel Barker should offer decent stick-moving and redzone options.
The derby to replace Walker is a crowded one. Transfers Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) feel like the probable frontrunners, but there are returning options in Jordon Simmons, Harold Joiner, Elijah Collins and Davion Primm. It’s unlikely any of them account for over 70% of the carries the way Walker did or otherwise duplicate his incredible success, but Broussard was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2020 and Collins was a few yards short of a 1,000-yard season in 2019, so this isn’t a group without talent.
Last but certainly not least, Payton Thorne returns as the no-doubt starting QB after a very solid first full year. He had his ups and downs, but after narrowly edging former Temple transfer Anthony Russo for the job, Thorne’s overall play justified that choice. Moreover, there are tempting comparisons to the last two Spartan quarterbacks who first started as redshirt sophomores.
Payton Thorne, 2021: 235/389 3,240 yards 27 TD/10 INT
Connor Cook, 2013: 223/380 2,755 yards 22 TD/6 INT
Kirk Cousins, 2009: 198/328 2,680 yards 19 TD/9 INT
There’s no guarantee Thorne ends up compiling the same accomplishments as Cousins and Cook in his time in the green and white, but those numbers are every bit as good. He’s also shown a Cook-reminiscent ability to shake off a bad play or bad series or even a bad quarter to make winning plays; this was especially true in the Peach Bowl.
There’s also frankly greater upside in Jay Johnson’s scheme and philosophy, which takes many more shots downfield than the more buttoned-up offensive approach that was in place when Cousins and Cook were slinging the rock. Finally, a little piece of obscure trivia no one reading this will have heard before: Thorne and Jayden Reed were actually high school teammates. The strength of that connection paid off multiple times - converting a vital 4th down against Michigan, the game-sealing touchdown over Penn State.
Overall, even after a pleasantly surprising season and an even-more surprising four NFL draft picks leaving this offense, it feels fair to expect similar if not improved production.