As one of the shortest players on the Morgan State football team, Herb Walker Jr. has a nickname among his Bears teammates: "Smurf."
The running back, who recently confessed to being 1 inch shorter than his already diminutive listed height of 5 feet 8, has heard worse from defenses. The insults don't bother him as much as the assumptions behind them.
Opponents tell Walker he's "soft. Or I don't run hard," he said. "But they'll feel me when I get the ball."
Neither label fit after the 19-year-old Walker set a school record a week ago. In Morgan State's 26-23 loss Saturday to Holy Cross, 26-23, the sophomore rushed for 271 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.
Walker eclipsed the previous school-best mark of 251 yards established by Jason Jackson in a 55-26 rout of Savannah State on Sept. 17, 2005. And Walker did it in his first career start.
"Anytime somebody rushes for 271 yards is a surprise," said coach Lee Hull, whose Bears team (0-2) will face city rival Bowie State (0-1) on Saturday at Hughes Stadium. "But I knew he was a great running back, and he did a great job. I thought he could be a consistent 100-, 125-, 150-yard guy, but yeah, the 271 surprised me."
Equally surprising was how Walker got his opportunity. He opened the season as the backup to sophomore Lamont Brown III, who led the team in rushing in 2013 with 708 yards and five touchdowns and who compiled 174 total yards from scrimmage and two scores in the Bears' 31-28, season-opening loss to Eastern Michigan.
Two days later, however, Brown's knee swelled. X-rays revealed that Brown had played despite a torn right anterior cruciate ligament that would sideline him for the remainder of the year.
Still, what might have been a disaster for some programs was, for Morgan State's coaches, no crippling loss.
"It was a concern, but … we had three running backs that we felt comfortable with and were competing for the starting job," said Hull, alluding to Brown, Walker and senior Tracy Martin. "So we knew we had two guys who are capable of carrying the load."
Martin, who had five carries for 22 yards against the Crusaders, said he and Walker don't feel any pressure to replace Brown.
"I think we're all ready to work together and be there for each other," Martin said. "I believe that we can all carry the load and run the ball hard, and I think Coach should be pretty excited about all of us being in there. Lamont going down is something that's unfortunate, but I feel like Herb and I will be ready and can definitely carry the team on our backs."
Walker, who started Saturday, began slowly against Holy Cross, gaining just 1 yard on his first three carries. But he finished the first half with 155 yards before adding 116 yards and two touchdowns in the last two quarters.
Senior quarterback Robert Council said Walker uses his size to his advantage.
"He's very short, and guys can't really see him when he hits the hole," Council said. "But when he gets a chance and can get into open space, he's very dangerous. So I've got a lot of faith in him."
Hull also noted that Walker isn't afraid to use his 180-pound frame to initiate contact with would-be tacklers.
"He's short in stature, but he's thick," Hull said. "He's a strong kid. So it's not about how tall you are. It's about your body weight in proportion to your height, and he's a strong kid. He does a great job in the weight room keeping himself in shape."
Walker said he welcomes the contact.
"I feel I'm tough," he said. "I'm 5-7, but I feel like I'm 6 feet on the field. It really doesn't matter to me."
Walker played high school football for Ted Ginn Sr., father of Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., at The Ginn Academy in Cleveland. The elder Ginn said Walker lived for football.
"We had to run him out of the weight room," Ginn said. "He walked around with a football in his hand. … He'd do everything he could so that he could play football. If you ever wanted to get his attention, say you're going to take the football away from him, and he'd jump off the building."
Ginn said opponents underestimated Walker because of his size at their own peril.
"He's short in stature, but he played like he was 6-2," Ginn said. "He's very competitive. If somebody was looking at him like that, he'd try to kill you. He had that short-man syndrome. He wanted to be bigger than he is, and he always played bigger than he is."
Hull has done his best to temper expectations for Walker, saying that everyone on offense must contribute against Bowie State. But Walker didn't shy away when asked about repeating his record outing.
"It just makes me want to do it again and break another record," he said. "I just set higher goals."
BOWIE STATE (0-1) @ MORGAN STATE (0-2)
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Site: Hughes Stadium, Baltimore
Audio: 88.9 FM
Series: Morgan State leads 5-4-1
What's at stake: For the second consecutive week, the Bears walked away with a three-point loss, absorbing a 26-23 defeat to Holy Cross when the Crusaders punched in a 1-yard touchdown run on the final play of the game. Morgan State, seeking its eighth victory in its past nine home openers, has won the past two meetings with the Bulldogs. Bowie State's most recent victory in the series was at Hughes Stadium on Sept. 10, 2005, when it won, 35-21. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, squandered a 22-7 second-half lead before falling to Saint Anselm, 23-22, on Saturday.
Key matchup: Bowie State senior quarterback Matthew Goggans threw three touchdowns against Saint Anselm, and two went to Nyme Manns (Patterson). The junior wide receiver caught a career-high six passes for 125 yards, and his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame poses a matchup problem. Junior DeShaun Summers is the Bears' top cornerback but is slightly undersized at 5-9, 175 pounds. Sophomore Antonio Jefferson, a converted wide receiver, has the size (6-1, 180) to match up with Manns.
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Player to watch: Lost in the hoopla surrounding sophomore running back Herb Walker Jr.'s school-record 271-yard performance against Holy Cross was a below-average outing from Robert Council. The senior quarterback went just 7-for-18 for 57 yards passing and one touchdown. Council did most of his damage with his feet, rushing the ball 11 times for 83 yards. But he has to improve through the air or risk the Bulldogs defense moving eight men into the box to limit Walker.