Wednesday, August 10, 2022

MSU's offensive line improvement has helped create a Heisman candidate

November 3, 2021
<p>Junior running back Kenneth Walker III finds an opening in the line during the Spartans&#x27; 37-33 win against the Wolverines on Oct. 30, 2021.</p>

Junior running back Kenneth Walker III finds an opening in the line during the Spartans' 37-33 win against the Wolverines on Oct. 30, 2021.

Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

Junior running back Kenneth Walker III has become a household name for fans across the country after his Heisman-defining performance led Michigan State to a comeback victory over Michigan on Saturday. 

His 197-yard, five-touchdown performance was the latest masterclass from Walker, and it came on the biggest stage in the country. According to Kevin Pauga of MSU Athletics, 9.3 million people tuned in to the game, making it the most-watched college football game in 2021. The performance boosted Michigan State to 8-0 and all but guaranteed Walker will be in New York in December as a Heisman finalist.

The gaudy performance brought Walker’s season totals to 1194 yards and 14 touchdowns through eight games. For reference for just how impressive that is, Michigan State ran for 642 yards and one touchdown as a team last season. Walker has helped reinvigorate Michigan State from one of the worst rushing teams in 2020 (123rd in the country) to one of the best in 2021 (32nd). 

Walker’s arrival helped lift Michigan State’s running game out of the cellar but his presence alone is not the sole reason. Walker’s big-play ability has shone through because of the improvements of the offensive line and its ability to create gaps on run plays. The big men up front have consistently provided a path for Walker to find space and make plays.

“I'm just very honored to be in that situation where I'm able to block for (Walker) and have him running behind us, so that gives us all the motivation,” graduate student right tackle AJ Acuri said. “At practice, he's always motivating us and he brings all the energy and keeps us going. It's awesome blocking for him.”

The offensive line has improved drastically from last season to today under the guidance of offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic. The members of last season’s line that struggled all year, including Acuri, returned for another season when most of the rest of the roster faced serious overhaul. Only one player, senior left tackle Jarrett Horst, transferred into the group, meaning the same members of last year’s group would be around for this year.

Many of the questions about MSU’s offense hinged on the performance of the offensive line and returners like Acuri, junior right guard J.D. Duplain and graduate student center Matt Allen. The group of veterans up front have answered the call time and time again, providing consistent lanes or slivers of space for Walker to explode through.

“I give a lot of credit to Ken,” Acuri said. “Obviously, I would say our offensive line has improved, but just his vision to see holes and see opportunities, and he's very good at taking notes. So I think that helps a lot.”

Walker has returned the favor for the efforts from the guys upfront. When Walker signed a NIL deal with TrueSleep Mattress in October, he made sure each offensive lineman on the team got a customized pillow as a part of the deal. 

The relationship between Walker and the offensive line started the moment he got on campus from Wake Forest. Acuri said the linemen could tell that Walker was special and had to learn to block a little bit differently when he has the ball.

“We kind of learned early on in the season that you gotta stay on blocks because just with his ability, you never know when he's gonna break a tackle or whatnot,” Acuri said. “He has that ability to break tackles and keep going so just staying on blocks is key for that situation.”

The offensive line has also worked with Walker to improve his ability to find the right hole. Kapilovic said that he and running backs coach William Peagler have worked with the running backs and offensive line together to understand timings of when holes should open up and where on the line.

“(Walker's) really maturing as a back,” Kapilovic said. “Just looking at the last touchdown where he hit the A-gap on an inside zone versus a bear front. Earlier in the year, he would have been looking to bounce it out and he really stayed true to his track and gave trust in those guys up front to get it done. And he was able to slip through that A-gap untouched and a big run. So I think he's even gotten better as we've gone along.” 

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