Transfer Kenneth Walker could put power into MSU running game

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Mel Tucker wasn’t sugarcoating things on Tuesday.

The Michigan State coach was talking about the Spartans’ rushing attack and how some new faces in the backfield might help provide a spark to that part of the offense.

“The run game was not nearly good enough, we all know that,” Tucker said as the second week of spring practice began with a morning practice. “I think putrid might have been a word that can be used. So, it is what it is. We need to get better. If we can't run the ball on our times, we can't beat good teams. We just can't do it. We need to be able to run the ball when we want to run it.”

That putrid attack that Tucker talked about has been rehashed plenty since the end of the COVID-shortened 2020 season. The Spartans managed just more than 91 yards a game on the ground, which ranked 13th in the Big Ten and 122nd in the nation out of 127 teams.

Kenneth Walker scored 13 touchdowns in seven games at Wake Forest.

It’s a far cry from the ground games of the past that led Michigan State to some of its greatest successes. From Lorenzo White in the George Perles era to Mark Dantonio’s days when the likes of Javon Ringer and Jeremy Langford were piling up yards and touchdowns, the Spartans have always had a powerful running attack that more often featured a standout back.

Tucker is hoping to get some of that back this season and one of the newest arrivals might just become the latest workhorse for the Spartans.

After scoring 13 touchdowns in just seven games at Wake Forest last season as a sophomore, Kenneth Walker III transferred to Michigan State and is already turning heads just more than a week into his first spring with the Spartans.

“He’s the same guy that we saw on tape,” Tucker said of Walker. “He gives great effort, he’s strong, has got great quickness, he has balance and body control, he can change direction, run through the smoke and has good hands. He’s a tireless worker. I haven’t seen him loaf one time and a drill. He hasn’t loafed in our group work or team work. Every rep, he makes the most of it and I’m glad we have him.”

More: MSU coach Mel Tucker looks forward to return of in-person recruiting

It’s easy to see why Tucker and running backs coach William Peagler liked Walker so much. His 13 touchdowns last season tied for third in the ACC and his average of 72.4 yards a game was 10th. In three straight games late in the season against Virginia, Campbell and N.C. State, Walker ran for more than 100 yards in each while scoring a total of seven touchdowns.

That’s the sort of production the Spartans are counting on from Walker after managing just two rushing touchdowns last season with none coming from a running back.

“I believe I can make an impact on the team,” Walker said. “I believe I'm an explosive back. I think my best thing is explosiveness, being able to go in and out of my cuts and my vision.”

Walker did plenty of that at Wake Forest. He finished last season with 579 yards on 119 carries for an average of 4.9 yards an attempt, numbers that would have been, by far, the best at Michigan State. And that was coming off a freshman season when Walker averaged 5.9 yards a carry, gaining 579 yards on 98 attempts with four touchdowns. Included in that was a matchup with Michigan State in the Pinstripe Bowl when Walker ran just eight times for 24 yards.

He didn’t know much about Michigan State when he first decided to transfer, Walker said, but it was the quick rapport he gained with Tucker and Peagler as well as the style of offense that drew him to the Spartans.

“I feel like I fit well in the offense,” Walker said. “That was pretty much the big part of my decision – the offense and it felt like good fit there.

“It’s more like a pro style (offense). Now when we're able to watch film on (the NFL), everything we do now I can see. When you watch film on the (NFL), they’re doing exactly the same, so it's pretty interesting to me.”

Interesting and potentially beneficial to both Walker and the Spartans.

There will be plenty of competition, of course. From veteran Connor Heyward to Jordon Simmons and Elijah Collins, there are players who have been productive. There’s also young players like redshirt freshman Donovan Eaglin and incoming freshman Davion Primm. There’s also the expected arrival of Auburn transfer Harold Joiner this summer.

It’s all in an effort to jump start the running attack, one that Walker might just end up leading.

“Personally, I want to be able to make an impact and contribute to the team and being able to get to know the guys,” Walker said. “We’ve created a bond and I know we've been working hard on the offseason. A big goal of mine, and pretty much everybody else on the team, is we want to get this conference championship and go all the way.”

A rejuvenated running game would be a good first step toward that goal.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau