Wake Forest faces transition at running back

Star running back Kenneth Walker has left Wake Forest for Michigan State

Charlie Benedict, Business Manager

The 2021 roster of the Demon Deacon football team should be the most experienced team that Coach Dave Clawson has had. The Deacons return nearly every offensive starter and a number of defensive players. That being said, one position group where Wake Forest will be a little unproven will be the running backs.

Sophomore Kenneth Walker III dealt a significant blow to the team by announcing his transfer to Michigan State in early January. Walker III, a native of Knoxville, TN, rushed for 13 touchdowns in seven games in 2020. Walker III impressed many with his improvisational ability, his sharp cutbacks and bowling ball mentality. He found the endzone in bunches, with three scores each in games against Virginia, Syracuse and NC State. In particular, his 75-yard scamper in the fourth quarter against Virginia on Oct. 17 put Wake Forest ahead for good. As a true freshman, Walker III was used more sparingly, but he still totaled 500 rushing yards and four touchdowns, including a 96-yard touchdown run against Rice. 

Walker III was saved by Clawson & Co. from college football purgatory — Wake Forest offered him late in the cycle when he was committed to Kent State. Walker III’s decision to transfer to Michigan State — a lateral move in terms of competitiveness — has to be disappointing for coaches and fans. It’s upsetting to think that a player like Walker III, seemingly on the precipice of stardom, feels that Michigan State (a team with 16 wins in the past three years) is a better place for him to play than Wake Forest, but c’est la vie. Next man up.

The Demon Deacons will return Christian Beal-Smith, last year’s leading rusher. Beal-Smith ran for north of 700 yards in 2020 with five touchdowns. Beal-Smith, a Winston-Salem native, will undoubtedly be the feature back for his redshirt junior season. He played sparingly, primarily on third downs in 2018 and 2019 behind Cade Carney and Matt Colburn. Beal-Smith is a capable receiver with screens and short passes, and he is also good in pass protection for a back of his size.

Returning alongside Beal-Smith in the backfield will be sophomores Justice Ellison and Quinton Cooley. Ellison played a bit in the second half of the season and showed flashes of talent, so it’ll be interesting to see how he develops with another offseason of strength training and development. Cooley was rehabbing an injury for most of 2020, but he could see the field some in the coming season.

Wake Forest was active in the transfer-portal-turned-free-agency-market after Walker III’s departure with the addition of Michigan’s Christian Turner. Turner ran for 266 yards in two seasons in Ann Arbor behind a talented RB room. He’ll be immediately eligible for the Demon Deacons next season and is likely to see significant playing time. Turner is a native of Buford, GA, where he attended powerhouse Buford High. As a high three-star recruit, he received offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin. He’ll have two seasons of eligibility and will hopefully be an impactful addition to the Wake Forest backfield.