The Big Ten has produced its share of top-flight running backs over the years.
This year is no different with the emergence of Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker, who follows in a longstanding tradition of Big Ten running backs taking both the college and eventually NFL circuits by storm.
From Jonathan Taylor at Wisconsin, to Le’Veon Bell at Michigan State or Saquon Barkley at Penn State, some of the best running backs in the league at one time or another hailed from the Big Ten.
But Walker’s journey, at least in part, is different than the recent prominent Big Ten running backs: he hasn’t been a 1,000 yard rushing threat until now, his junior year, and hasn’t been a feature back until this year, either. He also isn’t a receiving threat out of the backfield the way Barkley, Bell and other contemporaries were.
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This isn’t about what Walker can’t do or hasn’t done up until now. Rather it’s a look at how over the course of the first half of the season, the Wake Forest transfer became one of the best running backs in the nation.
Walker currently ranks first in the Big Ten and second in the NCAA in rushing yards with 997 and fifth in the conference in rushing touchdowns with nine. He’s also amassed four games with over 120 yards rushing, including two games with over 200 yards rushing.
The Spartans currently sit at 7-0 and are ranked No. 8 in the country ahead of a marquee matchup against No. 6 and fellow 7-0 foe Michigan, and Walker is a big reason for Michigan State’s success.
Here’s everything you need to know about one of the emergent running back talents in the country.
Why did Kenneth Walker III transfer to Michigan State?
Walker started at Wake Forest, where he spent his first two years playing for Dave Clawson.
He put his name in the transfer portal on Jan. 5, 2021 and it took him just one day to announce his next destination. It’s worked out well so far was Walker has been one of the best transfers in the nation in 2021.
Prior to transferring, Walker opted out of the Demon Deacons’ final two game of the year in 2020, citing COVID-19 concerns.
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Much of his decision to transfer stemmed from the type of offensive Wake Forest and Clawson ran, which Walker felt was limiting.
“At Wake, I felt like I wasn’t able to showcase all of my skills,” Walker said. “I believe I can be versatile. I can cut. I can run downhill. I believe I’m an explosive back.”
While Walker felt like he needed a change of scenery, the Spartans felt their running game also needed an injection of some life after ranking 13th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game and averaging just 2.5 yards per carry last year.
“After last season, I felt like we needed someone who was an explosive playmaker,” MSU running backs coach Peagler told CBS Sports. “We had a lot of good backs, but I didn’t feel like we had anyone who could hit their head on the goal post anytime they touched the ball.”
How good was Kenneth Walker III at Wake Forest?
Walker wasn’t an every down back for the Demon Deacons during his time at Wake Forest and they were one of only three FBS teams that extended him an offer.
The other two were Kent State, where he originally committed to, and Arkansas State. The Tennesse native eventually chose Wake Forest and after a relatively quiet, but efficient 2019, broke out somewhat in 2020.
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In just seven games with Wake Forest last season, Walker found the endzone 13 times, which was third in the ACC and 10th nationally and likely could have added to those numbers if he didn’t opt out of the team’s final two games.
All told, in his two years at Wake Forest, Walker carried the ball 217 times for 1,158 yards and 17 touchdowns.
How good has Kenneth Walker III been for Michigan State?
When Walker arrived in East Lansing, he was showing up to a crowded, albeit struggling running back room.
The Spartans ranked 13th out of 14 teams in the conference in rushing yards per game. They ranked in the bottom-five nationally in number of runs that went 10 or more yards.
They already added one three-star recruit and a transfer from Auburn before adding Walker and still had two other scholarship running backs on the roster.
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But Walker added something completely different.
“If I had to describe myself in one way, I would say explosive, an explosive back,” Walker said in August prior to the season. Connor Heyward, one of last year’s leading rushers for the Spartans even went so far as to say every time Walker touches the ball, it’s a “home run.”
The numbers bear that out. Walker’s got four games with over 120 rushing yards, including two with over 200. He’s also incredibly effecient, averaging 6.6 yards per carry, and rarely fumbles, having gone 338 carries dating back to 2019 without fumbling once — the longest current streak in the NCAA.
Michigan State had the nation’s 122nd best running game last year — now it’s 32nd. And Walker’s impact has extended to the passing game as well, as the Spartans are top-25 nationally in passing effieciency.