How Michigan State, Kenneth Walker III found a perfect match in one another

EAST LANSING, Mich. — There is a story Mel Tucker likes to tell — a few times this offseason, as one would imagine — about the player who helped accelerate Tucker’s football program.

It was Sept. 5, a Friday night in Evanston, Ill. For months leading up to the season opener versus Northwestern, Tucker and his coaching staff were quietly optimistic. They knew exactly what they had — even if others didn’t. It was time to introduce him to the college football world.

It happened quickly. The first play from scrimmage, to be exact. A 75-yard touchdown run to start the season had Michigan State coaches on the sideline grinning from ear to ear at the thought of a master plan coming together. Those thoughts were further confirmed by runs of 50, 30, 23, 16 and 13 in the game, en route to a 264-yard, four-touchdown performance in his Spartans debut.

Back in the locker room after the win, his teammates gathered around him in celebration — the clear man of the hour. Still in uniform, he was given the game ball, clutching it high and tight against his chest with no intentions of putting it down.

And shortly thereafter, on that night, an exchange between player and coach ensued — one that Tucker won’t soon forget.

Thanks for taking a chance on me,” Kenneth Walker III said to his head coach.

Thanks for taking a chance on you?” Tucker replied. “Thanks for taking a chance on us.”

There was perhaps no greater transfer portal pairing in college football last season than Walker and Michigan State. That night in Evanston was the result of two parties that found a perfect match in one another. It was a true give-and-take that helped both sides emerge better, even though it only lasted a year.

That one year is all it took for Walker to blossom into a consensus All-American, a Doak Walker Award winner and a Walter Camp Player of the Year recipient. It could serve as one of the best transfer portal success stories, in part because it wasn’t so obvious.

This wasn’t Justin Fields, 247Sports’ eighth-best prospect of the modern recruiting era, going from one powerhouse to another. There were 146 running backs and 2,163 players ranked ahead of Walker in the 2019 class. A native of Memphis, Walker was once committed to Kent State before Wake Forest — the smallest school in the Power 5 and his only such offer out of high school — entered the mix late in the cycle.

He wasn’t exactly a can’t-miss talent. That context is necessary. It’s what makes his story, and his fit with Michigan State, all the more compelling.


It didn’t take long for Walker to outplay that ranking. He received major snaps as a rotational back as a freshman and sophomore at Wake Forest. In those two seasons, he rushed for 1,158 yards and 17 touchdowns. Back then, he was a relative unknown — at least compared to the status he would later achieve. But the speed, the vision, the strength, the balance, the quick feet — anyone who turned on the tape knew he was capable of more.

Walker knew it, too. It’s why he entered the portal after the 2020 season in search of more and a system that could maximize those skills, rather than Wake Forest’s slow-mesh style. He was looking for a featured role in an offense that could use a player of his caliber, a bigger platform, better competition and a home that could inch him closer to his ultimate goal of playing at the next level.

There were some programs that took a look at him. UCLA, Memphis, Vanderbilt, to name a few. But it was Michigan State, perhaps better than any of the programs pursuing him, that laid out its vision for Walker and helped him see the bigger picture.

“When I was at Wake Forest, I felt like I wasn’t a great fit for that offense,” Walker said. “That’s when I ended up making my decision. Going to Coach Tucker, I had a great group of guys around me, my teammates and a great coaching staff. They put me in a pro-style offense that best suits my skills.”

The truth is, Michigan State needed Walker as much as Walker needed Michigan State. The Spartans were fresh off an underwhelming 2-5 season in Tucker’s first year as their head coach. The team lost those five games by an average margin of 26.4 points per game. Twenty-seven players entered the transfer portal that offseason, as the coaches looked to retool a roster of players inherited from Mark Dantonio’s final years and acquire those who better fit what they wanted to do. That included the running back position.

Tucker likens recruiting to the NFL Draft and the portal to free agency. That’s his NFL experience speaking. He has 10 years of it, after all. Tucker and staff entered the offseason looking to raise the level of talent, depth and competition via the portal. With the portal providing an organized list of available players for coaches to target and pursue, Michigan State took advantage by filling holes on its roster. One principle Tucker often preaches is fielding a team that’s capable of running the ball on its own terms. Michigan State didn’t do that in Year 1 as it ranked 122nd nationally in rushing yards per game.

The staff knew moves needed to be made. When the coaches sat down to evaluate Walker’s tape, they knew then that he was their answer.

“He was presented to me by our staff, and I watched his film,” Tucker said during a “College Gameday” segment. “He’s what I call a 10-play guy. If you have to watch more than 10 plays on a player, he’s probably not for you.”

“I knew it after about two,” former running backs coach William Peagler said. “As soon as we watched the tape, it was so apparent that he was the dude.”

The offseason leading up to Walker’s Michigan State debut was met with quiet confidence from those internally. There were stories of Walker quietly setting records in MSU’s weight room. Coaches smirked when they were asked about Walker and the type of impact he could have — a smirk that loudly said, “Just you wait.”

Back in the spring, Michigan State players were asked to write down a list of goals for the upcoming season, just so they can visualize it. On Walker’s list? Win the Heisman Trophy.

Behind closed doors, it wasn’t that all that far-fetched. Walker was expected to produce. That Northwestern performance was exactly what this staff believed Walker could do if it all came together.

“You saw him saw make a couple of cuts and make a couple of people miss, and you saw how physical he could be,” said Effrem Reed, MSU’s running backs coach who served as an offensive analyst coaching Walker in 2021. “When we got to fall camp, he was consistent with it, and that’s the truest measure of success in my eyes — consistency. Guys do it one time, but can they do it over and over? … And the first play of the game against Northwestern, obviously, we all expected it at that point.”

That game, as we now know, was a sign of things to come for both Walker and Michigan State. Michigan State was one of the surprise teams in college football last season. As Walker’s numbers piled up, so, too, did MSU’s victories. Against Miami, Walker generated 20 missed tackles on his way to a 172-yard day. A few weeks later, he rushed for 126 yards and three touchdowns versus Western Kentucky and added a casual 233 yards and three touchdowns against Rutgers the following game. You might remember a certain play from that game — a 94-yard touchdown run in which Walker shook several Scarlet Knights defenders out of their cleats and dapped up teammate Jalen Nailor about 20 yards before crossing the end zone. It was the longest play from scrimmage in MSU history. Walker also owns that record at Wake Forest, for what it’s worth.

Walker’s vision is one of his best attributes, often making something out of nothing. Michigan State was a zone-heavy team that played to those strengths. His cuts are decisive and purposeful. You can see him setting up moves two or three steps ahead of the defense. It’s like the game moves slower for him — or maybe he just simply plays faster than everyone else.

It was a luxury his coaches never took for granted.

“Ken was that guy that, you know, his vision was special most of the time,” MSU offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said this spring. “There’s plays that — there’s a hole there, and he’s supposed to go there, but he sees something else. He makes that cut, and everybody on the headphones is like, ‘Where the heck is he going?’ And then it’s like, ‘Oh, OK. We’re good.’”

All of those traits were on display for a national audience on Oct. 30. Michigan State and rival Michigan were set to meet for the first time as top-10 programs since 1964. It also happened to be the first time in the 114-year history that the teams met with records of 7-0 or better. As a result, East Lansing became the epicenter of college football for the weekend. ESPN’s “College Gameday,” Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff” and other pregame shows arrived in East Lansing for what was one of the biggest games of the college football season to date. The anticipation was palpable around campus, inside the grocery stores around town.

So what did Walker do in Michigan State’s biggest game in years? He ran for 197 yards and five touchdowns (the most ever against Michigan) and led his team to a 37-33 comeback victory. Ho-hum.

“The whole world was watching and got to see the type of player he is,”  Tucker said after the win. “In games like this, you have to be able to produce. He was able to do that.”



Kenneth Walker recorded 1,636 rushing yards and ran for 18 touchdowns in his one season with Michigan State. (Adam Ruff / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Walker’s impact on this Michigan State team was undeniable. He helped turn one of the worst rushing offenses in the country into an immediate strength. The threat of Walker on the ground opened up so much for the passing game, which took advantage of defenses keying in on Walker with deep play-action passes. Looking at the bigger picture, Walker’s year helped secure a long-term contract for Tucker, and the team’s success in 2021 accelerated what previously appeared to be a rebuild. Michigan State coaches now can use that success in recruiting, opening the door to a higher level of talent now that there’s some proof of concept.

Michigan State finished 10-2 in the regular season, 11-2 overall. Walker recorded 1,636 rushing yards and ran for 18 touchdowns. He ranked first among Power 5 backs in rushing and first nationally in yards after contact with 1,154. He generated more missed tackles (89) than any player in the country. He was named the Big Ten Running Back of the Year, the 2021 Doak Walker Award winner and a consensus First-Team All-American and took home the 2021 Walter Camp Football Award — given annually to the nation’s best player.

Those achievements, although significant, somewhat were overshadowed by the fact that Walker was not named a Heisman finalist. There’s a case to be made that Walker was among the most outstanding players in the country. His presence on this team helped Michigan State go from last place in its division to a top-10 finish with a New Year’s Six bowl berth. Instead, Walker became the first player to win the Walter Camp Award and not be named a Heisman finalist since the Heisman began recognizing finalists in 1982.

When the news came out that Walker didn’t receive an invitation, it was easy to wonder what was going through his mind. He’s not one to publicly state any disappointment he’s feeling — he’s a laid-back, neutral soul by nature. No matter, his head coach was there to offer a few words of wisdom to the player who changed his program.

The awards — the ones you win, the ones you don’t win — they don’t define you as a person or as a player,” Tucker told Walker behind the scenes. “Keep that in mind. We appreciate you.

That mutual appreciation between head coach and player continues, even though Walker’s time at Michigan State has concluded. Walker declared for the 2022 NFL Draft in December, thus ending a single season for the ages. It’s a decision that was long expected given the season he had. His draft stock improved significantly after he had a starring role in an offense that gave him everything he was looking for. But still, the news officially put a bow on a one-and-done career that won’t soon be forgotten in East Lansing.

Upon declaring for the draft, Walker ventured to Peniscola, Fla., to prepare for the NFL Scouting Combine. Walker is a quiet, unassuming personality who works in silence.  You won’t see too many workout videos or gym sessions on his Instagram. He prefers to show you on the field, which is why it wasn’t a surprise to see his training pay off in Indianapolis.

There, Walker ran a 4.38 in the 40 and recorded a relative athletic score of 9.24. Already viewed as one of the top backs in the class, his combine performance helped cement his stock and confirmed what those in East Lansing already knew.

“I told the scouts K9’s fast,” Tucker said. “They’re like, ‘How fast is he? How fast is he?’ I mean, the guy can run.”

Despite the fact that he soon will begin the next chapter of his life in a brand new city, Walker continues to have a presence around this MSU program. He watched his teammates come from behind and knock off Pitt to earn a Peach Bowl victory in December in Atlanta. They returned the favor in March, coming out in bunches to support Walker at his pro day in front of scouts representing every team in the league. This offseason, Tucker and some of Michigan State’s coaches were there to support Walker as he formally accepted his hard-earned hardware. And just a few weeks ago, Walker was back in town to hang around the building, get some training in and take in Michigan State’s spring game.

On Friday evening, surrounded by family and loved ones back home in Memphis, Walker received a life-changing phone call from the Seattle Seahawks. He heard his name called and saw it flash across the TV in front of him. His NFL dream has now been realized.

“It was amazing,” Walker said the night he was drafted. “I always say it’s like when (I was) growing up, you see guys on TV that go to this and you dream of this moment. And this day is actually here so it’s surreal and it’s a blessing to be in this position.”

By now, Walker has had plenty of time to reflect on his stint in East Lansing. He was asked recently if he has thought about how different life would’ve been had he never transferred to Michigan State. If all of this never came to be. Naturally, he admitted it has crossed his mind a time or two. After all, the portal isn’t as kind to everyone who enters it as it was to Walker.

That’s why Walker is appreciative of everything Michigan State provided him. It’s why he’s quick to point out how perfect of a match this was. It’s why he thanked Tucker, on that night in Evanston, for taking a chance on him.

“They put me in a great position to be successful,” Walker said. “Just having guys around me, it made it so much easier for me. I seem to get a lot of credit but, you know, we’ve got other guys on the field that have done an amazing job as well. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today.”

The feeling is mutual.


Related reading

The Athletic’s transfer portal live blog

(Top photo: Zach Bolinger / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Source link

Stay in Touch

To follow the best weight loss journeys, success stories and inspirational interviews with the industry's top coaches and specialists. Start changing your life today!

spot_img

Related Articles