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Kenneth Walker, the third (season)
Seaside Joe 1166: Recognizing how dire the situation was before Walker helped Save the Spartans
Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty are both in the College Football Hall of Fame, and as far as I’m concerned, the College Football Hall of Names. Biggie served as Michigan State’s head football coach from 1947 to 1953, winning two national championships, and was immediately followed by Duffy from ‘54 to ‘72, a period of consistent presence in the top-four college rankings.
Photo courtesy: Bob Hoskins’ character in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
That is not the type of dominance that I have come to expect from Michigan State during my lifetime, as other than a 1987 Rose Bowl victory*, the Spartans failed to generate much national noise in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.
*Offense featuring legendary college tackle Tony Mandarich, 5x Pro Bowl receiver Andre Rison, and 1988 first round running back Lorenzo White
There was a time when Michigan State could have been on a path to become a program similar to that of Alabama. Three decades of mediocrity, including 12 years under a fine coach named George Perles, put said opportunities on hold. But the Spartans still had enough sheen in 1995 to attract someone who would prove capable of turning a program into the next “Alabama”…but could they keep him away from the bigger programs like Alabama?
In 1973, Nick Saban was preparing to leave football after a three-year career as a defensive back at Kent State. But hanging around the area for a year as he waited for his wife to graduate, Saban was convinced by Kent State head coach Don James to take a position on his staff as a grad assistant.
"Don said, 'You know Nick, I think you would make a heckuva good coach,' " said Carol James, wife of her husband, who died in 2013.
Two seasons later, as many of you know, James left Kent State for the University of Washington and carved out his own legacy. Saban would move around the country, coaching for five schools over the next seven years, culminating in a position as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator beginning in 1983. Following that Spartans Rose Bowl win over USC, Saban spent two seasons as the secondary coach for the Houston Oilers, then one as the head coach at Toledo, then four as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns.
Finally, Michigan State had made a Michigan statement with the hiring of Saban in 1995 as a replacement to Perles. Though Saban’s first four seasons were as mediocre as the previous ~30, the Spartans opened the 1999 season with a 5-0 record after beating Oregon, Notre Dame, and blowing out Iowa 49-3. Though it was only October 9th, it must have felt like Michigan State was already playing for the national championship when they met against their rivals at U of M that day.
The Michigan Wolverines were also 5-0, including three wins over ranked opponents at Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Purdue behind decent play by quarterback Tom Brady and excellent performances by star running back Anthony Thomas. Despite a fourth quarter comeback performance that would foreshadow parts of his future success, Brady’s third-ranked Wolverines fell to the 11th-ranked Spartans, 34-31.
The Spartans ended Michigan's three-year winning streak in the annual battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. The Wolverines fell to 5-1 (2-1 Big Ten) on the season, while Michigan State remains unbeaten with a 6-0 record (3-0 Big Ten).
Senior quarterback Tom Brady (San Mateo, Calif./Serra HS) completed 30-of-41 passing attempts for a season-best 285 yards and two TDs.
Moments like these have been few and far between in the intrastate Michigan rivalry, but ‘99 was a marquee moment for the Spartans in the battle for Bunyan—just as it was about 22 years later for last year’s iteration…but we’re not quite there yet.
Nobody knew then how important the head coach for the Spartans and the quarterback for the Wolverines would become to football one day**, and it wouldn’t be apparent for the rest of that season. Brady finished the season with 16 touchdown passes and became a sixth round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Michigan State lost their next two games by a combined score of 92-38, before closing out with wins over Ohio State, Penn State, and Florida, all ranked, though Saban was already gone by the Orange Bowl victory against the Gators.
**Coincidentally, a grad assistant on Saban’s ‘99 staff would also serve as one of Brady’s Super Bowl offensive coordinators: Josh McDaniels
Though Michigan State tasted what it might be like to be a dominant college football program again in 1999, winning 10 games for the first time since 1965, Saban left for LSU, prior to a two-year stint with the Dolphins, then took over at Alabama in 2007; in case you needed an update, the Crimson Tide have been ranked first in the country for at least one week in each of the last 14 seasons. It’s a sight to behold, even if it is ruining the sport:
After mildly suffering through the seven-year era of two head coaches who will never even be nominated for the Hall of Names—Bobby Williams, then literally a guy named John Smith—Michigan State hired someone who at best is familiar to most college football fans and at worst is confused by NBA fans for Mike D’Antoni.
Mark Dantonio was one of Saban’s first hires at Michigan State in 1995, then like Saban he was later brought back as a head coach. Like Saban, he was signed on during the 2007 hiring cycle, and he had a very successful 13-year run with the Spartans. Dantonio led Michigan State to six 10-win seasons, six bowl wins, and the 2013 team was much closer to a national championship than I remembered.
But I say all of this—from Duffy to Dantonio—to set the stage for you before we get into Kenneth Walker III’s historic 2021 season with Michigan State.
A stage that saw Michigan State go 3-9 in 2016, 10-3 in 2017, then 7-6 in both 2018 and 2019, leading to Dantonio’s retirement from football in 2020. The once great Spartans hadn’t been legitimate contenders in the Big Ten since 2015 and the departure of Dantonio could’ve led to anything from the next Saban…to the next John Doe.
Mel Tucker is a name to keep stored in your back pocket.
Hired (of course) by Saban as a grad assistant at Michigan State in 1997, Tucker’s entire resume has stayed on the defensive side of the ball. He is a Saban disciple through and through, right down to stops at LSU, Ohio State, and the Cleveland Browns. Tucker was also Saban’s assistant head coach at Alabama in 2015, then Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 2016 to 2018. He then signed a five-year, $14.75 million contract to become the head coach at Colorado in 2019, a position he would hold for however long it would take to move to something better.
It wouldn’t take long. Michigan State signed Tucker to a six-year, $33 million contract in 2020, banking on the premise that despite his lack of head coaching experience, he would bring a unique intensity and football intelligence that is rarely found in a stack of resumes to become the Spartans’ head coach.
Photo courtesy: Someone who wasn’t making eye contact with Tucker
Tucker’s first season went as poorly as any in Michigan State history. Despite wins over Northwestern and Michigan (who was ranked 13th at the time, but finished 2-4), the Spartans went 2-5 during the Covid-shortened 2020 season. Michigan State ranked 117th in the nation in scoring (18 PPG), 100th in scoring defense (35.1 PPG), and they averaged 34 rushing attempts for 91 yards (2.7 YPC) per game.
Michigan State’s leading rushers were Jordon Simmons (56 carries, 219 yards) and Connor Heyward (65 carries, 200 yards).
Tucker’s only stint as a head coach prior to 2019 was a five-game interim audition with the Jacksonville Jaguars, after they fired Jack Del Rio in 2011. Could this experience be even worse than coaching for the Jaguars?
There were obviously obstacles between Tucker and success during his first season at the helm that had little to do with his coaching or recruiting abilities, and he wasn’t deterred from the belief that Michigan State could become a national powerhouse as soon as 2021:
Every Michigan State coach and player was given the same T-shirt prior to the season. The front says “destination,” and the back contains the GPS coordinates for Lucas Oil Stadium. That venue hosts the Big Ten Championship game and — coincidentally, or perhaps not, this season — the national championship game.
When Tucker handed those out, few outside the Spartans’ program considered them a serious challenger to Ohio State’s five-year conference championship streak. After an offseason of transfer turnover, Tucker’s rebuild project still seemed to be at the foundational stage.
Quite a few things changed at Michigan State from 2020 to 2021, but as I wrote in the last edition of this series, no move was nearly as important as the acquisition of Kenneth Walker III through the transfer portal. After proving to be one of the nation’s most dangerous home run threats at Wake Forest, but frustrated with the Slow Mesh offense because it couldn’t demonstrate his adeptness as an all-around great running back, Walker decided to opt out of the Deacons’ final two games and enter the transfer portal.
It took Walker about one day to realize that Mel Tucker was the right coach for him.
For Walker, it wasn’t the glitz and glamour then brought him to Michigan State. For him, it was head coach Mel Tucker and what he is currently doing with the program.
“I did a virtual tour with coach Kap (Chris Kapilovic) and they showed me the offense and how things work here,” said Walker. “After that talk, I ended up talking to coach Tuck (Mel Tucker), and I love the pics he gave about the culture he’s building here, and things like that. I was very interested in that. I felt like this was the best place for me.”
Chris Kapilovic takes care of a lot of responsibilities for the Michigan State football program. He is their assistant head coach, offensive line coach, and run game coordinator. This offseason, Kapilovic assisted in what appears to be the best move made heading into the season, helping to convince Walker to come to their program. He set it up and, coach Tucker knocked it out of the park for the Spartans.
Despite the excitement that I’m sure Kap and Tucker had for landing Walker, he was still seen as only one cog in a crowded backfield wheel:
At Michigan State, Walker and (Harold) Joiner will become part of a crowded backfield, but one that is open for a someone to stand out. Freshman Jordon Simmons played well this season and figures into Michigan State’s future plans, while junior Connor Heyward saw the most consistent playing time. Sophomore Elijah Collins saw sporadic playing time after leading Michigan State in rushing in 2019 while sophomore Brandon Wright played primarily on special teams.
Freshman Donovan Eaglin did not appeared in a game in 2020 and Michigan State also signed Oak Park’s Davion Primm during the early signing period in December.
You and I have gone over this in each part of the Kenneth Walker series… Walker was barely even recruited by anyone coming out of high school, ranking outside of the top 2,000 prospects in 2019. Then in his very first game on offense for Wake Forest, he broke a Deacons record with a 96-yard touchdown run. He then had a dominant game against NC State, proving to be a little too special for what Wake asks of its backs. Then he went “Red Wedding” against Virginia, making a statement that he was worth a better opportunity because of his penchant for unforgettable moments.
But the story of a great recruit or an exciting transfer who fails to fit with his new team is all too common. Kenneth Walker III could have theoretically been lost in the shuffle at Michigan State, Tucker and Kap could have overrated his abilities as a three-down back, and perhaps by 2022 he’d be playing for his third school in three years.
That’s not what happened. And we knew that from the very first play of Michigan State’s 2021 season.
The very first play. Where have we heard something like that before?
There are people who will tell you that they’re not rooting against Walker, but that even if he becomes the next Barry Sanders, that’s a player who you can sign off of the street. That if Walker is a dominant NFL running back, it’s not because he has a high football IQ or an unparalleled work ethic or exceptional speed, it’s because he happened to land with the right team at the right time. Or they might say that if he does have any elite skills, those are only thanks to genetics, because for some reason they don’t want to give any credit to the man himself.
What is it about players who play the running back position that makes people feel comfortable tweeting that their success is only a product of their environment?
But what I do know is that if Kenneth Walker III starts his Seahawks career anything like he started his career at Wake Forest or Michigan State, wasting no time in rushing for 75 to 96-yard touchdowns by embarrassing defenders with his IQ, vision, cutback abilities, patience, and speed, those “This will never be a good pick” folks will continue to find themselves ratioed by the many thousands of Seahawks fans asking them to kindly shut the fuck up while their favorite new player barrels through more levels of being underestimated.
Maybe I also just feel an extra special kindship to Walker because I am also a “Kenneth III”. My father and grandfather were also named Kenneth, albeit with different middle names, so I never go to wear the “III” when roll call would go around during school days. I always kind of wished that I had, because being a “Third” sounded so unique…even though technically speaking, it was only a qualifier tagged at the end because your name is decidedly not unique.
But whether you’re a Kenneth, a Biggie, a Duffy, a Mel, just another John or Nick, people don’t remember you because of your name. People will remember your name because of who you are and what you do.
There wasn’t much being said about Kenneth Walker III before last September. I’ll have a lot more to say about him in the next part of this series.