Kenneth Walker III is pretty much a running endorsement for the benefits of college football’s liberalized transfer rules on top of the virtues of fortunate timing.
He sputtered for two years at Wake Forest, then bolted to Michigan State as a transfer in 2021. Look at him now: Walker, who rushed for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, is arguably the top running back in the upcoming NFL draft after his amazing one season provided the spark to an 11-2 finish and Peach Bowl appearance for Mel Tucker’s revived program.
Right time, right place. That’s what transferring did for Walker.
“When I entered the transfer portal, I didn’t really know where I wanted to go,” Walker reflected recently. He quickly picked Michigan State, drawn by the pro-style offense that hardly resembled the Wake Forest scheme he didn’t fit.
Tucker closed the deal by selling culture.
“He told me about the ways they were changing the program around,” Walker remembered. “That’s what really sold me.”
And it worked out.
“No regrets,” he said.
Of course not. While there are some traditionalists known to bash the transfer portal instituted in 2018 after an iron-fist policy for decades typically dictated that players had to sit out for a season after transferring and, in some cases, prevented them from switching to certain schools (such as a conference rival), Walker was part of the first wave of transfers who didn’t have to apply for a waiver to play immediately after transferring for the first time.
It’s about time. It always struck me as patently wrong and a rotten imbalance that the NCAA allowed coaches to switch schools for better opportunities (and more money) without impunity, yet players were bound by byzantine policies despite fueling millions to schools, conferences, coaches and administrators. The transfer portal is like a recruiting reset for players, with the best ones undoubtedly hoping they’ll get to choose their team again in a few years on the NFL free agency market.
In Walker’s case, the gratification was rather instant. He ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run the first time he touched the ball in Michigan State’s backfield, setting the course for All-America honors that raised the bar on projections for the next level.
“I believe in myself,” he said, “but the way (last) season went I would not have imagined, me personally, (the season) would end this way.”
As the draft approaches, there’s some healthy debate about whether Walker or Iowa State’s Breece Hall projects as the top running back in the crop. Mel Kiper, Jr., ESPN’s longtime draft analyst, ranks Hall as the top back. Kiper’s colleague, Todd McShay, gives Walker the nod.
“That year was undeniable,” Kiper said of Walker. “He had a phenomenal year.”
Yet Kiper intimated that pass protection was his swing factor.
“Breece Hall was a little bit better than Kenneth Walker in that area,” Kiper said during a conference call last week. “That’s not a priority for a collegiate running back. It will be in the NFL. They all have to adapt to that. ”
Kiper considers Walker as a “solid second-round pick” and does not believe that either of the top two ball carriers will go off the board in the first round, with running back-needy teams such as the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills envisioned as potential matches. Last year, two running backs were chosen late in the first round, with the Pittsburgh Steelers selecting Najee Harris with the 24th pick and the Jacksonville Jaguars taking Travis Etienne one slot later.
“This is not a talented and deep running back group at all,” Kiper said. “After the top two running backs, there’s a huge drop-off to the third running back, who may not go until the third or fourth round. This running back group is very mediocre overall, but there are two standout performers at the top. ”
Walker projects the position that the opinions do not faze him.
“I don’t really have a response to the people, the critics,” he said.
During the combine, someone mentioned that analysts questioned whether he possessed top-end speed.
“I hear it,” he said. “But they’re going to say what they say. In one ear, out the other. ”
Walker (5-10, 210 pounds) went to the combine hoping to post a 40-yard dash in the 4.4-second range. He did even better in clocking a mark of 4.38, a tick faster than the time (4.39) posted by Hall (5-11, 217 pounds) and tied for second among running backs.
“It’s a blessing to make it this far,” Walker said. “In high school, I was not highly recruited at all. I had one (major) offer. To be in this position right now, it’s a blessing. “
Which is not to suggest that his expectations are modest. After transferring to Michigan State, Walker wrote down three goals: to win the Heisman Trophy, earn All-America plaudits and to win Walter Camp National Camp National Player of the Year honors. He achieved the latter two goals but did not make the list of the five Heisman finalists invited to the ceremony in New York, finishing sixth in the balloting.
Was that a serious slight?
“I believe there’s a chip on my shoulder,” he said, “but I didn’t pout about it.”
He went on to write down another goal: NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Maybe that can be achieved if Walker winds up in the right place at the right time. Again.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter ArJarrettBell.