Cornell football’s ground game, bolstered by the team’s impressive depth at running back, was a strength early last season. But when then-junior running back Chris Walker went down with a season-ending injury, the ground game stalled and an Ivy title fell out of grasp.
A long and grueling road back has Walker — who ran for 72.8 yards per game on his way to an All-Ivy first-team selection in 2016 — ready to return at nearly full strength by Saturday’s season-opener at Delaware, deepening a backfield thanks to last season’s breakout of junior Harold Coles. What’s more, Coles’ emergence gives Cornell the flexibility to use Walker in new ways — Walker isn’t even listed as a running back on the Red’s official depth chart.
“[Coles] ran this camp like he took it personally if any time he read ‘Chris Walker got hurt, so our offense sputtered,’” head coach David Archer ’05 said. “He was like ‘Oh really, is that what you think?’ He just runs at a different gear than he has in the past, physically [and] mentally.”
Archer has lots of backs who can do “a lot of different things,” he said, and he plans to use them in innovative ways.
“He might be in the game but you might not see him at tailback,” Archer hinted about Walker, who isn’t listed on the official Cornell depth chart. Coles and J.D. PicKell occupy the No. 1 and No. 2 running back designations.
With both Walker or Coles unhampered by injury, Archer is excited about his depth at running back, and he doesn’t plan on having a traditional hierarchy among his tailbacks.
“There’s a lot of guys I trust with the football,” Archer said. “If I have to say ‘he’s the starter,’ it would purely be [based on] what play do we want to run.”
Coles led the team with 515 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns last year, working as part of a trio with Walker and then-senior Jack Gellatly before seeing increased playing time after the former’s injury. Coles recently pulled his abdomen, but Archer expects him to be good to go for the season-opener.
Walker, who Archer said Tuesday is “day-to-day,” has had a speedy recovery and is on track to play week one — a welcome sign after the injury seemed likely to keep him out for the beginning of this season. Walker had over 200 yards rushing and receiving before his untimely injury last season.
While Coles and Walker are the big-name returners, the backfield will be bolstered by the return of PicKell, who sat out all of last season due to illness, a continued development of sophomore S.K. Howard, who saw his first varsity action last season, on top of the surprise of sophomore Jake Derderian, who is a walk-on.
Trust in the multiple running back options is the key for Archer, who plans to use his skilled ball carriers in non-traditional ways — what exactly that means remains to be seen, he said. Regardless, a rejuvenated backfield will be looking to take the next step behind a more experienced offensive line.
“Harold has had a great camp, we really trust him,” Archer said. “S.K. Howard has had a great camp, I trust him. J.D. PicKell … can do a lot of different things. Chris Walker is coming off an injury, he can do a lot of different things. Jake Derderian is a walk-on who’s producing the more reps we give him, and I think I’ve got three explosive freshmen.”