CHARLESTON — When a nagging knee injury from a prior year thwarted Chris Walker’s senior season at Cornell, he knew he a transfer decision loomed in his future.
The Ivy League does not allow graduate students to play sports, so Walker had two options: Take the spring 2019 semester off school, return in the fall for football and graduate in December, or graduate in May and transfer for his fifth year. He had played in only two games in 2018, so he was eligible for a redshirt.
He chose the latter.
“It was about setting up for business life after football to start my MBA here and not just waiting on an undergrad degree for another entire semester,” Walker said.
The decision led Walker to Eastern Illinois, where he is reunited with former position coach John Kuceyeski and has the opportunity to emerge as the primary option in a wide-open running back room. The Panthers top two running backs from 2018 are gone — Isaiah Johnson graduated and Jamal Scott left the team after the spring semester. Their third-leading rusher was quarterback Johnathan Brantley, leaving Robert Columbus as the top returner with a whole 19 carries.
There may not be another position with as little clarity on the roster. Which, for a former first-team all-Ivy league back like Walker looking for one more chance, is an ideal landing spot.
Of EIU’s six scholarship running backs, three have carried the ball in a game for the Panthers, but all in limited duty. Walker is a grad transfer, two are freshmen and the other three, Columbus, Courtney Rowell and Darshon McCullough, combined for 27 carries in 2018. McCullough was a factor in 2016 and 2017 (114 total rushes), but moved to defense midway through last season and started three games at the star hybrid linebacker/safety position. Rowell moved to defense too in 2018, prompted by his small role, but is back now. Meanwhile, Johnson established himself as a two-time all-conference player and Scott claimed backup duties after transferring from junior college.
“We knew it was a position where we needed somebody,” Kuceyeski said. “Truthfully it wasn’t all just position-based. We wanted them to fit what we are. I had the opportunity to coach Chris for three seasons, so I knew he represented what we were.”
Kuceyeski arrived at Cornell in 2016 as its running backs coach, where he inherited Walker as a sophomore. Walker ran for 655 yards on 5.4 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. He also caught 19 passes for 193 yards. The multi-faceted contributions earned him those all-conference honors.
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Cornell head coach David Archer moved Kuceyeski to offensive line coach in 2017, where he spent the next two years before becoming EIU’s offensive coordinator in December. A banged-up Walker ran for 282 yards (though on 3.5 yards per carry) in 2017 to go with 213 receiving yards before a leg injury ended his season in late October.
“I was kind of bummed out,” Walker said of losing Kuceyeski as his position coach.
Walker entered his name in the transfer portal after the 2018 season and initially began conversations with UT-Martin, Chattanooga, Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech. He liked the idea of playing in his home state. Then Eastern Illinois called and swayed him.
“We monitored it every single Friday and we had a list of new guys who entered the portal, the high school they were from, any background info we might have,” Kuceyeski said. “I saw that name, sent a text and asked if he was interested in playing a fifth year. He said yes, I asked who he was talking to and he mentioned some other teams in our conference. I said, ‘You’re not playing for them. You’re playing for us if you go anywhere.’
At Kuceyeski’s behest, Walker and his grandmother took an official visit to EIU in April and watched a spring practice. He left thinking that his recruitment did not need to extend any longer or include other official visits. He committed shortly after.
“They demanded a lot in the spring,” Walker said. “There weren’t many players so there wasn’t a lot to see football-wise, but you could tell what the coaches were envisioning in the future and they wanted me to be a part. So I bought in.”
Before his injury, Walker had just 15 total yards in two games. The prior year, he split carries with Harold Coles, a younger back who averaged nearly twice as many yards per rush. Combine a history of persisting ailments and declining production, and it often does not equate to a particularly sought-after grad transfer. It didn’t matter to Kuceyeski, though.
“What I loved about him is he loved to compete. He’s going to compete in all he does and make the group better,” Kuceyeski said. “I know what he’s capable of. For him, this is the final chapter to end on a great note and get back to where he was. This is probably the hungriest I’ve seen him. Hunger is a good thing and that room being a wide-open competition is great.”