Not much needs to be said to argue how important junior running back Kenneth Walker III was to the 2021 Spartans.
The Walter Camp Player of the Year, Doak Walker Award recipient and consensus First-Team All-American, Walker quickly catapulted Michigan State from a 2-5 record to serious Big Ten contenders.
He’s a highly regarded player by many NFL Draft experts, and with that comes a complicated decision few college football players are lucky to face: to play or not to play in a bowl game?
Ultimately, Walker decided two weeks before No. 10 Michigan State’s matchup versus No. 12 Pittsburgh it was in his best interest to skip the Peach Bowl and prepare for the 2022 NFL Draft. A few years ago, that decision likely would have been accompanied by scrutiny from the public. But as more and more players each year make the difficult decision to not play with their team for one final game, the idea has become more welcomed.
That holds true for Walker, who has been showered with nothing but love and gratitude since he ran for a 75-yard touchdown on the season’s opening snap versus Northwestern. The consensus, from a select group of MSU offensive players, has all been support for the Spartans’ star running back.
“I kind of expected it,” redshirt senior tight end Connor Heyward said. “I feel like he is going to miss Michigan State. I honestly felt like he didn’t want to leave, but with a season he had, you have to leave.”
However, redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne said he was a little bit surprised with Walker’s decision, but not in a bad way. The two backfield partners had talked before his announcement, but new information appeared to have steered Walker to opt-out.
“None of us on this team hold that against him by any means,” Thorne said. “We are in full support of him and I definitely am as well.”
As talented as Walker is on the field, graduate center Matt Allen is more concerned with Walker’s departure as a person versus a player, even as the two shared the huddle together and Allen paved the way for numerous highlights from Walker. It was a heartfelt message coming from Allen who has been in East Lansing since 2016 as one of the team’s longest-tenured players.
“What I love about Ken is that he’s an even better person than he is a football player, which is usually hard to come by when you’re that good,” Allen said. “He really is a great person and I was very blessed and excited to have the opportunity to block for him this year … I was blessed to have the opportunity to know Ken and play for him and help him achieve his goals this year.”
Redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed, who did not comment on whether this would be his final game as Spartan, reiterated a similar message.
“No doubt, words can’t describe how much we appreciate Ken for coming here this year and displaying that kind of talent out there,” Reed said. “He is a much better person than player he is. We definitely miss that and having him around.”
In terms of replacements on the field for Walker, the Spartans have a few different cards to play versus Pitt, starting with sophomore Jordon Simmons. He led MSU in rushing in 2020, but took a backseat to Walker in 2021, mainly serving as the team’s primary No. 2 back and carrying 54 times for 255 yards.
Then there is redshirt junior Elijah Collins. He broke out in 2019 with 988 yards on the ground and had high hopes going into 2020. A battle with COVID-19 derailed his 2020 season and injuries have limited him in 2021. Collins is the most experienced of the group and always seems to garner a few extra cheers from Spartan fans.
Redshirt junior Harold Joiner has served as the main third down back for MSU, but has just 14 touches on the season. A transfer from Auburn, Joiner’s frame at 6'4", 215 pounds is intriguing and perhaps the coaching staff will experiment with him on Thursday. Otherwise, redshirt freshman Donovan Eaglin is the only other running back with a carry.
Whether it is one guy as a workhorse running back or a committee, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson is confident in whoever will replace Walker, in addition to the balance of the offense.
“Yeah, we are going to sorely miss (Walker) and he’s phenomenal,” Johnson said. “But I feel really good about who we have at that spot and the guys that are coming back. And their development all year behind Ken and with Ken has been very good.”
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