Friday, January 28, 2022

Kenneth Walker III overlooked for Heisman despite dazzling East Lansing all season

December 7, 2021
<p>Spartan junior running back Kenneth Walker (9) runs the ball in Michigan State&#x27;s match against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. </p>

Spartan junior running back Kenneth Walker (9) runs the ball in Michigan State's match against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.

Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

Nobody thought he would be this good. 

Just like many other things. 

Nobody thought Michigan State would be 10-2 with a New Year’s Six Bowl on the horizon. 

Even as he began to turn heads of teammates and coaches in the early spring, nobody thought he would be THAT good. Nobody knew the instant fan-favorite in East Lansing would be junior running back Kenneth Walker III.

“I am a big fan of Kenneth,” redshirt senior linebacker Noah Harvey said leading up to Michigan State’s 2021 Spring Game. “In our winter conditioning, he was winning every single drill. He’s got a crazy motor. He’s a hard working kid, and I appreciate that. It stands out, and we are very grateful to have him.”

And there he sat on Tuesday, Aug. 31 at the podium in the Spartan Stadium Media Center three days before MSU opened the season at Northwestern. Nobody, absolutely nobody, knew what was coming. 

When Walker took the very first carry of the season 75 yards for a touchdown, Michigan State fans realized something: This kid was going to be special. 

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Fast forward to now, Walker continued his excellence following the 264 yard, four touchdown performance versus Northwestern. With the regular season over, he racked up 1,636 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in 12 games. Walker ranks first in the country in yards after contact (1,154), 20+ yard carries (21) and forced missed tackles (89), and ranks second in the country in rushing yards per game (136.3) and total rushing yards (1,636).

The highlight plays are endless, but nothing outclasses his 197 yard, five-touchdown show he put on in front of millions as MSU came back from a 16-point deficit to defeat Michigan.

“Every time he touches the ball, he’s got a chance to do something special,” Michigan State football Head Coach Mel Tucker said after defeating Michigan. “When you have a guy like that, the offensive line they’re going to strain, they’re going to finish and they’re going to believe. The tight ends and receivers, they are going to strain. They’re going to block, but they know that he can pop one at any moment."

However, it has not been easy nor has it been smooth sailing. 

Coming in as a transfer from Wake Forest, Walker was looking for a new beginning — a fit and scheme that would work better for him. Similar to what a lot of transfers look for in a new school; a new beginning. For some, it works out for the better. For others, it doesn’t. 

“Even from the start when I got here, everyone was really welcoming,” Walker said. “They took me in as a brother and it’s been very inviting.”

As Walker and the Spartans headed to Columbus, Ohio to take on Ohio State for a chance to reach the Big Ten Championship Game, Walker was already cemented as a consensus Heisman Trophy candidate. All he had to do was continue what he had been doing. 

But, the game was a disaster. Not just for him, but for the entire team in every possible aspect. It was a systematic dismantling by Ohio State that was over before many fans settled into their couches. Walker, who Tucker revealed after the game was battling an injury, carried the ball just six times for 25 yards. It was exactly what could not happen: a dud. 

To make matters worse, fellow Heisman Trophy candidate and freshman sensation quarterback CJ Stroud stood on the opposing sideline. He picked the MSU defense apart for 432 passing yards and six touchdown passes, elevating himself in the Heisman race while Walker could only stand there and watch. 

If he wanted to still be in consideration for college football’s most coveted individual award, he would need to bounce-back. He needed another stupendous performance versus Penn State in his last showcase before the final votes were made. 

But, he still had this mysterious injury that put his availability in question. And then another obstacle hit: the flu. Walker was one of the players battling flu-like symptoms during the week, and got a specific shoutout from redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne for battling hard.

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“I don’t think I was going to sit out at all,” Walker said. “I had my mind made up that I was playing either way. This is the last game and I wanted to play with my brothers one last time.”

And then the snow hit, just to make the Heisman hill tougher to climb. Walker had never played in the snow before, so he had to adjust to the slick environment that made it even harder to perform his signature mesmerizing cutbacks. 

Like he had all year, Walker rebounded with 138 yards and a touchdown, helping secure MSU’s tenth victory. He had the determination and the will, and lived up to the expectation. 

But despite the comeback, it was not enough. 

Walker’s name was left off the list of the four finalists for the Heisman Trophy on Dec. 6. Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, Alabama’s Bryce Young and Stroud rounded out the list instead. 

The Heisman Trophy winner will be announced on Saturday, Dec. 11. 

This story was in our Dec. 7 print edition. Read the full issue here.

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