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2022 NFL Draft Profile: Michigan State Running Back Kenneth Walker III

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NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Draft is coming up soon, as the event takes place in Las Vegas from Thursday, April 28 (beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern Time) through Saturday, April 30. In 2021, the Michigan State football program had its 80-year streak of having at least one player drafted snapped, but the Spartans will certainly have a player (or multiple) selected in 2022.

The MSU players most likely to hear their names called during the 2022 NFL Draft include running back Kenneth Walker III, wide receiver Jalen Nailor and tight end/H-back/fullback Connor Heyward, with other Spartans also pursuing the professional football ranks as well.

As the month of April continues to inch closer to the draft, The Only Colors will take a closer look at Michigan State’s three most-likely draft candidates by providing profiles for each player. We will start the series with Walker, who is widely expected to be the first Spartan selected this year.

Profile:

Name: Kenneth Walker III
Position: Running back
Height: 5-foot-9
Weight: 211 pounds
Draft Projection: Late-first-round or second-round pick


NFL Combine/Pro Day Measurables:

40-yard dash: 4.38 seconds
Bench press (225 pounds): N/A
Vertical jump: 34.0 inches
Broad jump: 10-feet-2-inches
Three-cone drill: N/A
20-yard shuttle: N/A

Walker participated in Michigan State’s pro day in March, but mostly just in positional drills, as he chose to sit on his excellent numbers from his NFL Combine performance in Indianapolis a couple weeks prior. Walker’s blazing official 4.38-second 40-yard dash time was tied for third amongst running backs in a group of 27 that was historically the fastest at the position, with six individuals running in the 4.30-to-4.39-seconds range — the most ever recorded in one year.

Additionally, Walker ranked 10th out of 31 running backs in the vertical jump (34 inches) and ninth of 31 running backs in the broad jump (10-feet-2-inches). He did not participate in the bench press or any of the agility tests (20-yard shuffle and three-cone drill).

Walker’s performance at the NFL Combine solidified his status as one of the top running backs in the draft, and very well may have bumped him up to the No. 1 overall halfback on many NFL teams’ draft boards.

Walker’s most recent Relative Athletic Score (RAS) was an outstanding 9.25 out of 10 (according to the RAS website, while the above tweet says 9.24), which puts him in the top-10 of all qualifying 2022 running backs. RAS grades each player’s testing measurements from their pro day and NFL Combine performances based on a zero-to-10 scale compared to their peer group and quantifies a player’s total output.


Statistics and Accolades (career at Michigan State and Wake Forest)

Via MSUSpartans.com and GoDeacs.com:

Games Played: 33 (12 starts with Michigan State)
Rushing attempts: 480 (263 at MSU)
Rushing yards: 2,794 (1,636 at MSU)
Rushing yards per carry: 5.82 (6.22 at MSU)
Rushing yards per game: 84.6 (136.3 at MSU)
Rushing touchdowns: 35 (18 at Michigan State)
Receptions: 19 (13 at MSU)
Receiving yards: 136 (89 at MSU)
Receiving touchdowns: one (at MSU)


Overview:

It’s hard to think of another player who was only at Michigan State for one season, but had the kind of impact that Walker did. From his very touch as a Spartan — a 75-yard run against Northwestern in the season opener — it was easy to tell that Walker was a special player, and a difference-maker for Michigan State. While he ultimately only played in 12 games at MSU, Walker will forever live in Spartan lore and be remembered as a fan-favorite.

Walker played a big part in the Spartans’ year-over-year turnaround, as MSU went from a 2-5 campaign during the COVID-shortened 2020 season to 11-2 with a Peach Bowl victory (in which Walker opted not to play) in 2021.

There were a lot of incredible things Walker accomplished in his short stint in East Lansing. His record setting five-touchdown performance lifted Michigan State to an upset victory over the rival Michigan Wolverines. He was the first ever Spartan to win the Walter Camp Player of the Year award and the Doak Walker Award. He earned unanimous All-American Honors, received All-Big Ten first-team recognition, won the Big Ten Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year award and received many other accolades.

However, the thing about Walker that really stands out isn’t just about his undeniable talent on the field. Walker — an incredibly shy and reserved person off of the field — was a team player first and foremost. While he would usually have outstanding individual performances, he would always credit his teammates, and his main focus was winning as a team. Oftentimes when his teammates talk about Walker, one of the first things mentioned is the love they have for him as a person.

As for how his game translates to the NFL, Walker possesses just about every trait NFL personnel decision-makers are coveting for running backs: speed, vision, ability to create space on his own, explosiveness, shiftiness, change-of-direction skills, balance, ball security, will make defenders miss in the open field, etc.

Walker, like every college player looking to make the NFL, isn’t a perfect prospect. There are question marks about his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, something he wasn’t asked to do too much during his college career. There are even more question marks about his ability in pass protection. From what is out there, most scouts, analysts and coaches seem to believe in Walker as a future starter, but he will need to improve in pass protection if he wants to be a true every-down back.

One other minor “negative” about Walker’s game that has been brought up is his “rush-track discipline.” What this means is, while Walker was one of the best players in college football at being able to create space on his own, which is still going to be a valuable trait in the NFL, scouts, analysts and coaches would like to see him hit the proper hole on a more consistent basis and keep the play where it is designed to go.

With that said, these are all areas Walker can (and likely will) improve upon in the pros with the right coaching. He is looked at as the top running back in the draft by many scouts and analysts, and more than likely, several NFL teams feel the same way. It would not be surprising to see Walker earn an immediate role with the right team, and eventually take over as a full-time starter. He is widely projected to go in the second round, which could be incredible value for a player like Walker.


What scouts and analysts are saying about Walker:

“Walker is a compact back with a very powerful, sturdy base. He can find his own yards with twitchy directional change when run-blocking breaks down and possesses plus-rated contact balance to add on to his yardage throughout the game. Walker is a very determined runner who is more reactive than instinctive, which leads to wild shifts in his rush track. He can handle RB1 workload in terms of carries but needs work as a third-down option. Walker would benefit from better rush-track discipline, but his explosiveness and unpredictable style should still lead to success as a future starter.” — NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein

“When I started really studying his tape, putting on the coach copy tape, he plays at a different speed. From the moment the ball is in his hand, it’s electric, he just explodes off the snap. He’s not the biggest back but he lowers his shoulder, he’s going to drive for extra yards. He’s sudden, everything he does is snap.

“You compare him to Breece Hall, who is more of that patient runner who builds up speed, phenomenal workout numbers. I know everyone is talking about (Hall) late in the first, I don’t see it as much as I see it with Walker in terms of what translates to the NFL. I’ll be interested to see how it plays out and maybe Breece Hall goes before him.

“He’s going to have to make a professional decision. You hear about it all the time, business decisions. He just does not show a ton of interest and he doesn’t play with the same fire and burning passion in pass protection. That’s going to be the one thing with Walker that is concerning to me. If he wants to be a great player, not just a good rotational back, if he wants to be a star or a standout starter in the league, he’s going to have to improve in that area. I’m hopeful that he will.” — ESPN’s Todd McShay, via MLive

“He’s going to be in the second round, I believe. Some maybe think first...I think one running back does goes in the first. I think Breece Hall could…Maybe you think late first (for Walker) but I’m going to say second round for him. I think he has a chance to be a lead back in this league so I’ll say second round.” — ESPN’s Mel Kiper, via MLive

Positives: Instinctive, explosive ball carrier coming off a record-breaking campaign. Patient and displays outstanding vision. Quickly finds running lanes and shows a burst through the hole. Consistently turns it upfield working runs and carries the ball with authority and explosiveness.

Fast enough to beat defenders into the open field, quick enough to make defenders miss, and strings multiple moves together over the course of a single run. Runs with balance as well as body control, squeezes through the small creases of the defense, and at times looks like he squirted out of nowhere. Effective catching the ball down the flanks.

Negatives: Not a big-bodied back and lacks strength as a ball carrier. Rarely used as a receiver out of the backfield. Marginally productive prior to his arrival at Michigan State.

Analysis: Walker is a hard-charging ball carrier who was a touchdown machine in college and displayed a variety of skills carrying the ball. He possesses enough ability to be a feature ball carrier in a zone-blocking system, but Walker must be more productive as a pass catcher to have a long career in the NFL.” — Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline


Highlights: