Meet Kareem Walker, Jim Harbaugh's First Victory over Urban Meyer

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterFebruary 22, 2016

Jan 2, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Team Armour running back Kareem Walker (6) eludes Team Highlight outside line backer Ben Davis during the first half of the 2016 Under Armour All-American Game at Orlando Citrus Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

When Ohio State trounced Michigan by a score of 42-13 last November, it undoubtedly left a sour taste in the mouth of Jim Harbaugh following an otherwise impressive debut regular season in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Fortunately for the Wolverines head coach, with the home stretch of the 2016 recycle approaching at the time, he wouldn't have to wait a full year to get another shot at Urban Meyer.

And with 4-star running back Kareem Walker's commitment to Michigan coming less than a month later, Harbaugh finally found himself on the scoreboard against his new archnemesis—even if it didn't officially count in the record books.

Having initially given his pledge to the Buckeyes during halftime of their College Football Playoff championship victory in January 2015, the addition of Walker to the Wolverines' fifth-ranked class was as much about symbolism as it was Harbaugh securing the services of the nation's fourth-ranked running back. 

Despite not possessing the same recent track record in the college ranks as Meyer, Harbaugh proved he's capable of going head-to-head with the three-time national champion head coach in the recruiting trail in a battle similar to the one Meyer won over Michael Weber mere months earlier.

Michigan's flipping of Walker was even more impressive when considering the 6'1", 210-pounder hails from New Jersey, which has become one of the Big Ten's biggest recruiting battlegrounds in recent years.

According to Walker—who's already enrolled at Michigan—the decision to sign with the Wolverines after decommitting from the Buckeyes in early November wasn't necessarily about picking between two rivals; rather, it was simply about choosing where it made the most sense for him to begin his college career.

"It was just a great fit," Walker told the Big Ten Network following Michigan's Signing of the Stars signing day event. "Coach Harbaugh is a great coach. I feel like in those games where it doesn't come down to the players and comes down to the coaching calls, I feel like him and his staff will do a good job of making those plays and putting us in the right position to win."

And while Meyer declined to discuss Walker's decommitment in depth, he did admit it can be "heartbreaking" to lose a prized prospect who has been committed to your program for nearly a year.

"Some relationships are better fits than other relationships. And sometimes it's heartbreaking when you get really close to a young guy and the family and he decides on somewhere else," Meyer said. "But that's part of the business. We don't worry about what we didn't get. We worry about what we got."

What Ohio State got in Walker's place was 4-star running back Antonio Williams, whom 247Sport composite ranks as the No. 7 running back in the 2016 class., however touts Williams as the nation's No. 3 back—three spots higher than it places Walker at No. 6.

ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 28: Head coach Urban Meyer of the Ohio State Buckeyes and head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines after the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ohio Stat
Andrew Weber/Getty Images

Fair or not, Walker and Williams will be linked throughout their respective college careers due to the perception that the latter replaced the former in the Buckeyes' class, which ultimately ranked fourth in the nation. For what it's worth, Williams, a former Wisconsin commit, flipped his pledge to Ohio State in October, two weeks before Walker took his decommitment public.

But that hasn't stopped Walker from hearing it on social media from some of the Buckeyes faithful who claim that despite his departure, Meyer wound up with the better back. During a signing day appearance on The Michigan Insider with Sam Webb, Walker directly addressed the backlash from those apparently unhappy with his change of heart.

"I don't know how many I've blocked on Twitter, but it's over 20 fans I've blocked," Walker told Webb. "When I get on Twitter, it just be a whole bunch of Ohio State fans. My thing be, if y'all got a better back, why y'all still salty I left?. 'Oh, Antonio Williams is better than Kareem.' Alright cool. Why y'all still tweeting at Kareem?"

The comparisons between Walker and Williams will have to wait until they officially begin their college careers this fall, with their first showdown in "The Game" set to take place on Nov. 26. But with the start of the Wolverines' spring practice a week away, Walker has already managed to create a buzz in Ann Arbor after just a few weeks on campus.

That was evident during Michigan's Signing with the Stars, where the Wayne, New Jersey, native's highlight package was met with "oohs" and "ahhs" from the capacity crowd inside of U-M's Hill Auditorium. "I was hoping they put a few more plays in that," Walker said with a smile after. "The ones that they got was nice."

On the field, there appears to be an immediate place for Walker to step right in, with the Wolverines' leading returning rusher, De'Veon Smith, having rushed for just 753 yards and six touchdowns in 2015. At his size—and with room to grow—Walker could ultimately be comparable to Frank Gore, who rushed for more than 1,100 yards in each of his four seasons in Harbaugh's offense with the San Francisco 49ers from 2011-14.

"Oh, I'm playing," Walker said of his outlook for 2016. "I just gotta learn the playbook. But I'm not riding the bench. I came here to be great. I didn't come here to sit on the bench."

Greatness might be a lofty expectation for a freshman season, even for a player who rushed for 4,563 yards and 55 touchdowns over the course of his high school career. The Garden State product has already mentioned needing to work on picking up his legs during big runs and pass protection as areas he needs to improve on before taking the field this fall.

But with at least three years left, there's plenty of time to sort out what will ultimately become of Walker's college career.

Thanks to his storied recruitment, however, he's already managed to make an impact.

Walker's decommitment from the Buckeyes and subsequent move to the Wolverines helps signify a new era in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry—and gives his new head coach some newfound momentum while perhaps taking some of the sting out of what happened on the field last November.

How his college career will stack up to already lofty expectations remains to be seen. But all eyes—in both Ann Arbor and Columbus, Ohio—are already watching his every move.


Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.


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