Earlier this week, three Michigan State Spartan football players spoke to the media. Two of the student-athletes recently transferred into the program — running back Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest) and defensive end Drew Jordan (Duke) — while defensive end Jacub Panasiuk decided to return to the MSU program for a fifth year of eligibility, which was granted to all fall athletes due to COVID-19.
Jordan and Walker used the opportunity to introduce themselves to the media and talk about what they bring to the table on the field, while Panasiuk discussed what went into his decision to return to the program and his battle with COVID-19 last year.
We recap those conversations below.
Drew Jordan, defensive end graduate transfer from Duke:
After putting out plenty of impressive film, and gaining a lot of starting experience at Duke, Jordan mentioned he received a lot of attention in the transfer portal. Ultimately, though, Michigan State was the right choice for him.
“A big reason that I thought of joining Michigan State was just how the coaching staff was — they were very honest with me,” Jordan said. “And then the biggest reason was, they would set me apart from other defensive ends in this next draft class. They’re really giving me an opportunity to come in here and play, work under a lot of guys that have a lot of NFL pedigree.
“As well as, you know, they really made my family feel comfortable,” Jordan added. “They really included my family a lot in the recruiting process. It was a huge decision on me leaving Duke, just because I had a lot established there, but I took that leap of faith knowing Michigan State would set me apart for the next level.”
While Jordan spent the past four seasons at Duke, and is still getting used to his new team and surroundings, he had actually visited the East Lansing campus while MSU was recruiting him out of high school. That made the transition a little bit easier for the defensive end.
“When I first started getting recruited again by Michigan State, you know, I had actually had a visit up here (in East Lansing) when I was in high school,” Jordan said. “So, obviously I knew coming in what the landscape looked like — how the locker room was set up. That was huge, being already familiar with this program. Coach Haze (defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton) was a huge part in my recruitment (from the portal). I really spoke with everybody for the most part.”
Additionally, Jordan grew up together with Michigan State running back Connor Heyward in Georgia, and the two actually played youth football together. Having that familiarity with Heyward, as well as being familiar with his new position coach, defensive line coach Ron Burton, helped to make Jordan’s decision to come to Michigan State a little bit easier.
“I know Connor (Heyward) of course,” Jordan said. “We played little league ball together, grew up together, I’ve known him for a very long time now. Also, knowing Coach Burton from the staff in the past was also very important — just having that familiar face and knowing that I’d be OK coming up here.”
Interestingly, Heyward actually reached out to Jordan after he put his name in the portal and helped recruit him to Michigan State. Heyward, having entered the portal once himself, before returning to MSU, gave Jordan some advice.
“Me and Connor (Heyward) spoke briefly about what he had done (when he entered the transfer portal), but also we thought it would be very exciting to come back together and be teammates once again,” Jordan said. “Right when I actually got into the portal, (Heyward) hit me up and was like ‘Hey man, you may want to look at us here.’ And that was very important, just because he took value in who I was and then also having that connection between when we played together and now, with the opportunity of playing together once again. That was the biggest thing — just being able to rekindle what we had in the past and play together once again.”
Jordan, an experienced veteran, thinks he can provide leadership for the Spartans. However, he knows as one of the newest guys in the program, he has to earn the respect of his teammates, which he is already doing.
“The biggest thing that I’ve noticed thus far is showing the guys who I am, putting in the work, because I can’t just come in and just start speaking everything into existence,” Jordan said. “I have to show them and lead that way. And then once I get that foot in the door with that leadership of ‘Oh wow, this guy’s actually really serious about this and it’s important to him,’ then I start being more of a vocal leader. It starts off with laying that foundation of ‘I’m coming in to work.’”
Jordan went on to say that his goals are more team-oriented compared to individual accolades. While he mentioned wanting to get to the NFL as a big reason for why he came to MSU, his top priority is to help the team win.
About those Michigan winters, Jordan said it was “brutal” at first because he isn’t used to dealing with snow coming from Georgia and playing in North Carolina previously, but he added that he got used to it.
Kenneth Walker III, running back transfer from Wake Forest
Walker admitted he didn’t know much about Michigan State before deciding to make the move to East Lansing, but he did play against the Spartans in the 2019 Pinstripe Bowl — when Michigan State defeated Wake Forest 27-21.
However, after having conversations with head coach Mel Tucker and running backs coach William Peagler, and hearing the plan those two coaches laid out for Walker’s fit in the offense, he was sold on Michigan State.
“As I was in the portal, I got a chance to talk to Coach Peag and Coach Tuck a lot,” Walker said. “They showed me everything, like sent me pictures of the campus — you know, we couldn’t join the campus and everything with COVID — but I got to see the campus (virtually) and everything. They showed me the offense, I felt like I was a good fit in the offense...and that was my big decision (to join Michigan State).”
As for why Walker decided to leave Wake Forest, after scoring 13 touchdowns in 2013, he simply didn’t see it as a good fit for him moving forward.
“I feel like I didn’t fit as well in the offense,” Walker said, “That was pretty much a big part of my decision.”
The running back room at Michigan State is congested, but competitive. Walker, Heyward, Jordon Simmons, Elijah Collins and Donovan Eaglin are all currently on the spring roster, with Auburn transfer Harold Joiner III and true freshman Davion Primm expected to join the program in the summer. Walker likes what he sees from the group.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good set of backs,” Walker said. “We compete at practice, but we also push each other to do our best. I make mistakes, they critique me, and vice versa, to make sure we get better.”
As for what Walker brings to the MSU backfield, he had this to say:
“I believe I’m an explosive back,” Walker noted. “I think my best thing is explosiveness, being able to go in and out of my cuts, and my vision.”
Overall, Walker just wants to make a positive impact on the team and help the Spartans reach their ultimate goal of winning as many games as possible.
“I wanna be able to make an impact and contribute to the team,” Walker said. “Being able to get to know the guys, we’ve created a bond, I know we’ve been working hard in the offseason. A big goal of mine, and pretty much everybody else on the team, we wanna get a conference championship and go all the way.”
Walker also said that being “accountable” and being “trustworthy” are important traits. Those terms have been words of emphasis within the program as it continues to build a strong culture under Tucker.
Similar to Jordan (Georgia), Walker hails from down south (Tennessee), and wasn’t used to the Michigan winter and snow when he got to campus. But, bad weather or not, he loves the culture at Michigan State.
Jacub Panasiuk, defensive end who is returning for a fifth season:
Panasiuk tested positive for COVID about a month before fall camp started last August, but with the season’s start being postponed to late October, Panasiuk was able to return to the team prior to the opening game against Rutgers. Still, the virus affected the shape he was in and his overall play.
The decision to come back made the most sense for Panasiuk. He didn’t like how the 2020 season went, and he wasn’t ready to leave his teammates.
“Last year didn’t go as I expected,” Panasiuk said. “I thought I was gonna have a big year. I came into camp at around like 250 pounds. I was in the best shape I’ve been in a while. Then I got COVID, lost a bunch of weight, and then dropped to, I think I hit 225 (pounds). I just played throughout the season, just got through it, and decided it was best for me to come back. I didn’t think I performed the way that I should have. I thought it was unfair to me and my teammates if I just got up and left when I could use another year and come back and help out the team.”
While Panasiuk currently weighs 245 pounds, he still wants to gain about 10 more pounds or so before the fall and play around 255 or 260 pounds in 2021. The coaches and strength and conditioning staff helped him get back to where he needed to be, but it was a long and difficult process.
“The coaches and the strength staff just took me through a program to try and get me back into things,” Panasiuk said. “I started gaining a little bit of weight, but really struggled. I couldn’t put on much weight, battled through some injuries just because I was just playing really light at defensive end in the Big Ten. It didn’t really work out that good.”
Panasiuk, now entering his redshirt senior season, wants to lead and be a role model for the younger guys. Taking notes from former Spartan defensive linemen who helped him grow into his role, such as Kenny Willekes, Dillon Alexander, Raequan Williams and, of course, his brother Mike Panasiuk, Jacub wants to take players under his wing and help them get better.
“I just try and follow the steps of the players that were here (previously),” Panasiuk said about his role as a leader on the defensive line. “When they were here, the older players would always take the younger players under their wing. Example, when Dillon Alexander was here, when Kenny (Willekes) was here also, they took me under their wing and just showed me the ropes — showed me how to study a playbook, how to watch film, taught me all the little things that you wouldn’t think that would be such a big deal in college football, (but) they obviously are.
“And Mike (Panasiuk) and Rae (Raequan Williams), they would always look out for the younger kids. So I feel like that’s what I’m trying to pride myself on and strive for is trying to help out the younger kids develop and just overall become better football players.”
Panasiuk also likes what he sees from Jordan, saying “he’s a really cool dude,” and that he like his size, strength and versatility. Panasiuk says Jordan will definitely play a role in the defense and help the team win.
Similarly to both Jordan and Walker, Panasiuk, who said he had more individual goals last season, is just more focused on staying healthy and helping the team win this coming season.