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Seaside Joe 1155: Wake Forest freshman season highlights
Kenneth Walker III plays the running back position like an elite Dance Dance Revolution player. At any given moment, with each careful footstep, Walker reassesses the situation in front of him and like a great quarterback, alters the plan based on what the defense is giving him.
While we grew comfortable with the term “generational” for prospects like Kyle Pitts, Tyler Linderbaum, and Jordan Davis recently, has Walker’s place as a prospect been overlooked amid the annual conversation around running back value?
Let’s be clear: Kenneth Walker III is the player who’s most responsible for Michigan State going 11-2 last season after finishing 2-5 the year before. The reason that that Spartans went from 2.7 yards per carry in 2020 to 4.8 yards per carry in 2021. And even if he didn’t become a Heisman candidate or even a bonafide starter until he arrived at Michigan State last year, it was never due to a lack of talent. Or even because of any red flags.
He was overlooked as a recruit out of Arlington, Tennessee in 2019, he was overlooked as a true freshman at Wake Forest when he broke that play against Duke above, and he was overlooked earlier in the year when he broke a school record with a 96-yard touchdown run.
This post is for anyone who thinks they can judge a player’s value based on a one-page college bio and scouting combine profile, thereby freeing them from the burden of having to actually watch football so that they can overlook why the Seahawks drafted him in the second round.
This post is also for people ready to get really fucking excited about Kenneth Walker III in Seattle because I don’t think we’re going to have to wait long to see his impact in the NFL. If either of these apply to you, please consider hitting subscribe and sharing Seaside Joe with a Seahawks friend. Or foe. Nothing against my foes.
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In his second game as a college player, his first with a carry, Walker did this in the same year that he failed to crack a list of the top 2000 recruits in the country:
Two of Walker’s best attributes as a running back are on display during this 96-yard touchdown run against Rice. The first is speed, with his 4.38 showing up as he breaks away from four defenders to finish off the run. The other is patience, because Walker often hesitates before blast off, but never out of fear.
We also see vision, burst (Walker goes from the 5 to the 15 faster than any of the four defenders he slips by could have anticipated), and the ability to shed contact. Rice is a soft landing spot for a debut and at the same time it is also true that 90-yard runs are rare.
That 96-yard run was one of Walker’s first career runs. Now let’s look at plays from four more games of Kenneth Walker’s forgotten freshman season in the ACC.
Wake Forest vs North Carolina (Condensed Game Highlights)
Wake’s “Slow Mesh” offense under coordinator Warren Ruggerio required Walker and other backs to essentially run a patient RPO style attack.
Once you know what you’re looking for it’s hard to unsee the action. An elongated mesh point that makes it seem like those two inhabit their own space-time continuum amidst 20 other bodies. But it is just one part, albeit an important one, in Wake’s broader offensive system, one that that through Week 7 is scoring the 12th-most points per game of anyone in the country.
“We have a variable tempo running game,” Deacons offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero told Sports Illustrated. “Some things happen very fast. Some things happen somewhere in the middle, and some things happen very slow. The one thing that happens slowly, everyone looks at and says oh my gosh and that’s why they love to talk about it.”
Walker didn’t love running the slow mesh at Wake, but he did excel at it because of his elite quickness, decision making abilities, and off-the-charts football IQ.
Some people may watch the run above and think, “Any back could do that, he just ran through what the defense gave him.” I wouldn’t pay attention to those people.
Walker bends around the safety, then outruns linebacker Chazz Surratt (#21), a player whose 4.59 40-yard dash helped get him drafted in the third round last year. There are running backs who get five yards on this play, running backs who get zero yards on this play, and running backs like Kenneth Walker. There aren’t many running backs like Kenneth Walker.
There are running backs who lose three yards on this run, but Walker makes two distinct correct decisions as a runner before getting to the line of scrimmage, at which point he barrels his way through for a gain of six.
Walker finished with 13 carries for 94 yards.
Wake Forest vs Elon (Condensed Game Highlights)
How do I avoid doing an Elon Musk joke? Better question: How can we avoid making Elon Musk jokes based on a meaningless coincidence that there’s a shared name?
It is true that one thing you won’t see a lot of in this series is receptions by Walker. This 15-yard gain is the first of six catches that Walker had at Wake Forest, followed by 13 last season at Michigan State. I really can’t think of a reason why Walker couldn’t handle more targets, however. There aren’t reports that I know of that say he was being limited because of personal limitations.
There are reports that Walker didn’t like running in the slow mesh offense, as he said so himself after transferring in 2021:
"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."
There’s a moment from the canceled ESPN show Playmakers (every episode is on YouTube but I can’t remember when it actually happens) when the coach is explaining to the older running back why the younger running back is taking over… he slows down the clip and shows him how there is a major difference between running a 4.4 and running a 4.5 when attempting to gain yards through the defense.
Walker’s sub-4.4 speed is on display here against Elon, breaking through two tackles and picking up 20 yards, where for most backs it may have not even been a first down.
Against this small school program, there was a scandal about whether or not these rushing yards should count against such an inferior team, but I don’t want to stretch out Elongate any longer than it has to be.
(That’s how you make an Elon joke.)
Walker finished this game with nine carries for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Wake Forest vs NC State (Condensed Game Highlights)
The Deacons only gave Walker seven carries over the previous three games, but then he had a career-high 16 attempts against NC State on November 2nd.
Avoiding TWO tackles behind the line of scrimmage, Walker goes left, then right, then left again, curving through the defense like its route 66 for another pick up of nearly 20 yards.
Walker finished with 16 carries for 56 yards in a blowout victory over the Wolfpack. This may be a good time to talk about how Walker’s college career shares some parallels with former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson:
Barely recruited out of high school
Chose an ACC program in North Carolina because it was his only offer from a Power 5 (Walker’s only offer was Wake Forest, whereas Wilson’s only offers were NC State and Duke)
Proved to be a poor fit for the ACC because he’s simply built better than the 95-99% of the players in the conference, excluding Clemson
Was the top transfer in the nation
Went from no national attention in the ACC to getting Heisman votes in the Big Ten (Walker finished 6th in Heisman voting, Wilson finished 9th)
Wilson and Walker were both massive recruiting mistakes by college football’s top schools. They were overlooked but as soon as they arrived, it was obvious that only a glitch could have allowed them to go to a conference they were over-qualified for.
Wake Forest vs Duke (Condensed Game Highlights)
Walker’s true breakout game came in Wake’s Week 13 win over Duke, as he ran for 113 yards on 17 carries. Ridiculing them in front of their peers, Walker forever guaranteed that Lori won’t go to the dance with Duke’s defense.
Walker was producing first down carries like the refs owed him money and the only form of acceptable repayment was moving the chains for him.
Walker bullies and buries would-be tacklers at the line of scrimmage, then a safety running at full speed, then takes on three defenders at once like he’s aware that he’s going to take a job that Marshawn Lynch once had.
If you’re rooting against Kenneth Walker because you believe it’ll make you look smart one day for criticizing the pick, this is not the type of shit you wanna see right now.
Walker is the exact type of running back who is set to give Pete Carroll confidence to run the ball more often on second-and-long.
Damn, it’s going to hurt watching the guy who does play on the team you like doing things you should like.
Walker can also have an impact without the ball, as in the clip above he serves as lead blocker for the QB keeper, then keeps pace with quarterback Jamie Newman all the way to the end zone.
More first downs. Walker waits for his moment, holds the linebacker’s attention just long enough for him to become engaged by the blocker and allowing Walker to reach the imaginary yellow line. It’s his football IQ that served Walker better than anything else as a true freshman at Wake, though speed, quickness, vision, and power doesn’t hurt either.
Yeah, you just can’t really be a football expert if you think that 100% of running backs would gain 30 yards on this play. A good chunk of running backs would gain about 30 yards less than that, and it’s not because of one single attribute. Studies have shown time and time again that running backs, long thought to simply be names on a website that played for my fantasy football team and nothing more, are actually human beings.
Here’s one more against Duke. I would hate to be a Seahawks fan who doesn’t get to root for this guy. Three broken tackles and the only thing that stopped him from running was the back of the end zone.
Sharing the backfield as a true freshman with junior quarterback Jamie Newman, senior running back Cade Carney, and sophomore running back Christian Beal, Walker only got 98 rushing attempts but finished with 579 yards and four touchdowns. Walker averaged 5.9 yards per carry with the same offense around him as Carney (3.9 YPC) and Beal (4.3). Newman led the team with 180 rushing attempts but gained fewer yards (574) than Walker.
And this is only the beginning.
Wait until we get into the season in which Walker scored 13 touchdowns over six games, or when he transferred and became the most dominant running back in college football for a surprise national championship contender.
Kenneth Walker is about to run through those doubts.
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