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Kenneth Walker III's career day against NC State revealed his remarkable talent as a 3-down back
Seaside Joe 1157: After proving to be a recruiting steal for Wake Forest a year earlier, Walker sets himself apart from other ACC running backs right of the gate
On Wednesday, I highlighted key moments from Kenneth Walker III’s surprisingly explosive freshman season at Wake Forest. Ranked outside the top 2,000 recruits in the 2019 class, Walker set a school record with a 96-yard touchdown run in his very first game at running back, tore up Duke’s defense late in the year, and averaged 5.9 yards per carry on 98 attempts, which ranked fourth in the ACC behind Travis Etienne, Lyn-J Dixon, and Deejay Dallas.
Walker’s 5.9 YPC would have ranked as the third-best mark in Demon Deacons history if he had gotten only two more attempts, and he did that behind an offensive line unit the struggled to run block more than anything else. In the words of Blogger So Dear, the Wake Forest SB Nation site, as posted between Walker’s first and second college campaigns:
The largest elephant in the room is that last year, this unit was not good at run blocking. Yards be damned, a considerable chunk of yards on the ground were Jamie Newman, Cade Carney, Christian Beal-Smith and Kenneth Walker III making something out of nothing, versus the OL opening up easy paths for them.
Ware Forest write Cam Lemons noted that offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero’s style was holding back Walker from getting more rushing attempts, but apparently Walker’s blocking skills were also keeping him off of the field:
Under Dave Clawson, Wake will never have a bell cow running back. It’s not in his or Warren Ruggiero’s style, with the amount of plays Wake runs it doesn’t make sense, the only time Wake last did it was a stretch in 2017 where Matt Colburn was the only healthy playable(that word means a lot) running back on the roster at the time.
Kenneth Walker has seemed to be the popular option for fans and the media, but he has to get better at doing things without the ball in his hands, something Clawson has repeatedly said about Walker.
But ESPN’s David Hale hailed Walker as potentially an elite ACC running back despite limited action as a freshman and zero hype as a recruit:
Excluding Travis Etienne, most yards per carry on first down, most yards per carry after contact, second-highest missed tackle percentage.
A little bit of (ANALYTICAL) hype was building behind Walker after his freshman campaign, with PFF ranking him as the 23rd-best running back returning to college football in 2020—even though he wasn’t a notable recruit by any measure, he plays football at Wake Forest, and he only had 98 attempts as a freshman. That’s how fascinating those 98 attempts were to the onlookers who were actually looking on.
True freshman running back Walker had to run behind the No. 96 run-blocking unit in the FBS, but that didn’t stop him from having success. He trucked his way through defenders, averaging the fifth-most broken tackles per rush. The highlight of his 2019 campaign came in Week 13 when he broke 11 tackles on his 17 carries.
With all that hype behind him, the reward for Kenneth Walker III earning a bigger role in Ruggiano’s 2020 offense was a Week 1 date against top-ranked Clemson, then fresh off a championship loss to Joe Burrow’s Tigers but still featuring a top-ranked defense; Clemson allowed only 3.1 yards per carry in 2020. FootballOutsiders ranked Clemson sixth overall in the nation in defense that year.
So you won’t find any Kenneth Walker highlights in that game—Clemson led 27-0 at halftime and 37-3 after three quarters. Walker finished with six carries for 19 yards.
Despite the lack of opportunities, check out Walker’s fancy footwork/his speed/his IQ to gain a first down on this play against Clemson:
But a week later, Wake’s level of difficulty eased a little with a matchup against North Carolina State. A year earlier, Walker had 16 carries for 56 yards against the Wolfpack. This time, Walker got 27 carries—10 more than his previous career-high.
Here’s a closer look at Kenneth Walker III as he sets the tone for his breakout sophomore season with Wake Forest. If you think Seaside Joe content isn’t bad at pass blocking, please throw me one of the following: Comment, like, share, and/or consider a paid subscription. Only $5 a month to support a mom-and-pop newsletter.
Kenneth Blocker III
Having switched from #25 to #9, Walker doesn’t see action in this one until after the Deacons are already down 14-0. Since I already brought up pass blocking as a potential “weakness” from his first year in college, do we see that as an issue on this play?
Not really. Walker’s patience pays off as both a runner and a blocker, preventing the charging linebacker from interfering with QB Sam Hartman’s throw up the middle.
I’m not going to show any more pass blocking highlights from this game than this one, but I watched them all and my takeaway is that there were no issues in this particular game. I can’t speak to other games from 2020 yet.
Standard Run, Extra Yards
Walker uses his lead blockers—the pulling right guard and right tackle, to barrel through the correct gap for a first down and a gain of eight yards. It may look like standard fare, but Walker gains three or four more yards than when he’s first contacted by the tackling linebacker.
Stretch play picks up 13 yards
Kenneth Walker wouldn’t have even picked up the first down if he had been tackled when the cornerback though he was going to tackle Walker—instead, Walker bats him away like department store cologne and gains another 10 yards after first contact. Instead of fourth down, it’s first down and more.
Shackled, not tackled
At the end of this play, it appeared Walker may have fumbled. Refs reviewed it and ruled that it was not a fumble. Instead, it’s yet another broken tackle and more yards after contact for Walker.
This is a running back that any sane team would want on its roster, knowing that he provides more value than a replacement running back. Well worth a second round pick, it’s amazing that running backs like Walker are no longer top-15 picks—a benefit to those franchises in a position to draft him when they do.
Finding first downs that most backs don’t know exist
Kenneth Walker runs into the pocket and he goes so deep that you wouldn’t think there’s an escape. Well, maybe you wouldn’t, but Walker did:
These are not “every day plays” for a running back. There’s truly something unique about him and his story can’t be told through a chart or a graph.
Here is the very next play.
Almost good enough to make you wanna share with a friend, no?
Direct Snap TD
Walker scored a touchdown to tie the game late in the second quarter. Then again tied the score with a touchdown to tie the game late in the third quarter, this time carving left then right through the defense.
Walker’s combination of speed and vision sets him apart from most at the position. That also helped get him ahead of starter Christian Beal as the season went on.
Two broken tackles on the same player
New play, same direct snap TD
For the third time, Kenneth Walker scores a key TD, this time giving Wake a fourth quarter lead.
This should be a 0-yard gain. But look at him bully.
Yes, Walker gets a push from the defensive player behind him, but there’s tenacity with every moment that he is contacted on the football field. He only gets pushed for more yards because he’s standing upright, fighting through the tackle, and constantly moving his feet. Reminds you a little bit of Marshawn Lynch.
Walker finished this game with career-highs: 27 carries, 131 yards, three rushing touchdowns.
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We didn’t know it yet, but these were the types of games we could come to expect from Walker over the next 15 months of college football. If you were watching college football.
The next time you see someone tweeting about why it’s bad football business to draft a running back in the second round, just keep in mind that most of “those people” couldn’t tell you what number Walker wore in college, let alone that he had more than one; they couldn’t tell you what offensive systems he played in; they couldn’t tell you what his life was like prior to Wake Forest; many of them may not even realize that Kenneth Walker played somewhere other than Michigan State, and that’s if they even knew he existed prior to day two of the draft.
These aren’t just claims that I’m making… These are claims that “they” are making because “they” want you to know that according to them, none of that matters. Nothing. Despite calling themselves analysts, they don’t even want to analyze the position that touches the FOOTBALL in FOOTBALL more than any other player on the field other than the quarterback.
Don’t make the claim that Walker is an exception. They don’t think there are exceptions and by you noting that there are exceptions, you’re giving them ammo to say that there’s a rule to be excepted.
Instead, do not engage in the running backs don’t matter arguments. Unless you are stuck in 2017 having the same conversations that have been on repeat for years, there’s no excuse to engage in a debate about whether or not Kenneth Walker matters to the Seahawks. It’s your experience and nothing else. The next time someone tells you that running backs don’t matter, if you feel you need to respond, the best answer to that phrase or one like it is simply: “Haha. Nice.”
“They” are being ridiculous. If you engage, then you are being ridiculous.