Michigan State searching for Walker replacements this spring

Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK
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Michigan State leaned on Kenneth Walker III a lot during its turnaround season, handing him the ball 22 times a game with much success.

This spring, and in the fall, someone else will need 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 starts Sept. 2 against Western Michigan.

When spring drills end Saturday, the lack of healthy offensive linemen has led coach Mel Tucker choosing 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 it.”

Walker had some eye-popping numbers during 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 best running back, was The Associated Press’ Big Ten co-offensive player of the year and finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting.

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

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

There is no shortage of running backs motivated to make the most of the opportunity to share the carries Walker has left behind.

Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger made a favorable early impression this spring with elusive moves that have made it it hard for the defense to bring him down.

“Berger, he emerged,” Tucker said.

Davion Primm, who redshirted as a freshman last season, has also caught Tucker’s attention.

“I’m not putting him in the hall of fame or anything,” Tucker said.. “You ask about players that have gotten better. He’s flashing.”

Elijah Collins, who ran for 988 yards in 2019, and Jordon Simmons, who had 70 carries for 278 yards last season, have the most experience among returning players in the backfield.

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 single-season school record with 27 touchdown passes last year, breaking Kirk Cousins‘ mark, and is among the all-time leaders with 3,414 yards passing and in passing efficiency.

Just don’t expect Michigan State to transform into a pass-happy team.

“We’re still going to base things starting with the run game,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “We need to do that. That’s what our program is, the physicality that coach Tuck wants.”

Georgia extends contract for AD Josh Brooks, plans two new football practice fields

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ATHENS, Ga. – On the heels of a second straight national football championship, Georgia has rewarded athletic director Josh Brooks a contract extension that ties him to the Bulldogs through at least 2029.

The athletic association board, wrapping up its annual spring meeting Friday at a resort on Lake Oconee, also announced plans for a new track and field facility that will free up space for two more football practice fields.

Brooks’ new contract will increase his salary to $1.025 million a year, with annual raises of $100,000.

The 42-year-old Brooks, who took over the athletic department in 2021 after Greg McGarity retired, called the Georgia job “a dream for me” and said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in Athens.

“I am extremely grateful,” Brooks said. “I got into this business 20-plus years ago as a student equipment manager. My first job at Louisiana-Monroe was making $20,000 a year in football operations.”

The Georgia board approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $175.2 million, a nearly 8% increase from the most recent budget of $162.2 million and the sign of a prosperous program that is flush with money after its success on the gridiron.

The school received approval to move forward with its preliminary plans for a new track and field facility, which will be built across the street from the complex hosting the soccer and and softball teams.

The current track stadium is located adjacent to the Butts-Mehre athletic facility, which hosts the practice fields and training facilities for the football program.

Georgia lost a chunk of its outdoor fields when it built a new indoor practice facility. After the new track and field stadium is completed, the current space will be converted to two full-length, grass football practice fields at the request of coach Kirby Smart.

“He wants to find efficient ways to practice, and there is a lot of truth to the issues we’ve had with our current practice fields,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of strain on our turf facilities staff to keep that field in great shape when half the day it is getting shade, so that has been a challenge as well. For our football program, it is better to practice on grass fields than (artificial) turf, so to be able to have two side-by-side grass fields is huge. It makes for a much more efficient practice.”

The new track and field complex, which will continue to be named Spec Towns Track, will also include an indoor facility, the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.

Iowa AD Gary Barta announces retirement after 17 years at Big Ten school

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa athletic director Gary Barta will retire on August 1 after 17 years at the university, the school announced Friday.

Barta, 59, is one of the longest-tenured athletic directors in a Power Five conference. He was hired by Iowa in 2006 after being the AD at Wyoming.

An interim director will be announced next week, Iowa said.

In September, Iowa hired former Ball State athletic director Beth Goetz to be deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer, putting her in position to possibly succeed Barta.

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve in this role the past 17 years,” Barta said in a statement. “This decision didn’t come suddenly, nor did it come without significant thought, discussion, and prayer.”

“That said, I’m confident this is the right time for me and for my family.”

Iowa won four NCAA national team titles and 27 Big Ten team titles during Barta’s tenure. The women’s basketball team is coming off an appearance in the national championship game and the wrestling team is coming off a second-place finish at the NCAA championships.

Barta served as the chairman of the College Football Playoff committee in 2020 and 2021.

He faced heavy criticism over more than $11 million in settlements for lawsuits in recent years alleging racial and sexual discrimination within the athletic department.

Lawsuits filed by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and associate athletics director Jane Meyer led to a $6.5 million payout.

Iowa had to pay $400,000 as part of a Title IX lawsuit brought by athletes after it cut four sports in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the agreement, Iowa reinstated the women’s swimming and diving program and add another women’s sport.

Iowa added women’s wrestling, the first among Power Five schools to compete this year.

A lawsuit brought by former football players alleging racial discrimination within the program was settled for $4.2 million last March, which prompted state auditor Rob Sand to call for Barta’s ouster.

“Gary Barta’s departure is a long time coming given the four different lawsuits for discrimination that cost Iowa more than $11 million,” Sand posted on Twitter.

The university did not allow taxpayer money to be used for the settlement with the former players.

Barta led Iowa through $380 million of facility upgrades, including renovation of Kinnick Stadium, the construction of a new football facility, a basketball practice facility and a training center for the wrestling teams.

Under Barta, Iowa has had just one head football coach (Kirk Ferentz), women’s basketball coach (Lisa Bluder) and wrestling coach (Tom Brands). All were in place when he arrived.

Barta has also come under scrutiny for allowing Ferentz to employee his son, Brian Ferentz, as offensive coordinator. To comply with the university’s nepotism policy, Brian Ferentz reports to Barta.