Niyo: MSU’s Kenneth Walker III has lofty goals, again; NFL teams should pay attention

Detroit News

Indianapolis — Kenneth Walker III wasn’t shy about setting goals a year ago. A two-year backup running back at Wake Forest, the transfer junior at Michigan State wrote down three things: Heisman Trophy, Doak Walker Award, All-American.

Less than 12 months later, he’d crossed two of those off his to-do list. The third was out of his control, left in the unreliable hands of Heisman voters.

But now, as Walker gets ready to take the next step in his football career this week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, he says he has a new list.

“And my main goal is, I want to be rookie of the year,” said Walker, who’ll take part in combine testing and on-field drills here Friday along with the rest of the top running backs in the 2022 draft class.

Walker knows how that might sound to some. But he also knows what it takes.

Namely, he says, “Hard work and dedication.”

More: Niyo: How Kenneth Walker III went from second-stringer to MSU All-American, NFL prospect

And if we learned anything about this 21-year-old Memphis native last fall, it’s that his impressive self-belief is hardly unfounded. What’s more, his self-discipline is something prospective NFL employers might want to pay attention to when they set their draft boards later this spring.

“It’s very important for me,” Walker said, “to stay focused on the main goal and take it one step at a time.”

Immediate impact

After all, that’s how he made it all this way, from an overlooked high school recruit with just one scholarship offer from a Power 5 program (Wake Forest) to a poster boy for the power of the transfer portal in college athletics, rushing for a whopping 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior to carry the Spartans back into the national spotlight.

Walker didn’t get an invitation to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist, and he says now, “I believe that’s a chip on my shoulder. But I didn’t pout over it.”

Walker, who ultimately finished sixth in the Heisman balloting, did win the Walter Camp Award as the national player of the year, though, becoming the first running back to earn that honor since Alabama’s Derrick Henry in 2015. And the decision to enter the draft wasn’t all that difficult for a player who’d proven just about everything at the college level by the end of last season.

Walker signed with agents Pat Dye and Ben Setas, a 2011 Michigan State graduate — and former manager for Tom Izzo’s basketball team — who went on to work for Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama. And after opting out of Michigan State’s Peach Bowl game to rest an ankle injury, Walker has spent the last couple of months training at the Exos athletic performance center in Pensacola, Florida, alongside Michigan State teammate Connor Heyward, and a group of other draft hopefuls. (Among them are Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary, Boston College guard Zion Johnson, Indiana linebacker Micah McFadden and Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan.)

Walker plans to do all the on-field drills and testing here at the combine, other than the bench press, which he’ll wait to do for NFL teams at Michigan State’s pro day on March 16. Walker says he’s focused on the 40-yard dash Friday in Indianapolis, where “I’m shooting to be in the 4.4s.”

If he does, he just might be the first running back off the board in late April. Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller and Iowa State’s Breece Hall are two other candidates for that honor, one that Walker calls “a dream of mine.”

More: Detroit Lions 2022 scouting combine preview: Running backs

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah calls Walker “a really good player” who “runs much bigger than his 212 pounds.” And while he rates Spiller and Hall a bit higher, Jeremiah says he loves the running back depth in this class, which also includes Michigan’s Hassan Haskins.

“I was talking with a personnel director the other day and said, ‘Let’s just circle the fourth round,’” said Jeremiah, a former NFL scout. “You’re going to get a great back in the fourth round, especially if you want a bigger back.”

Don’t listen to critics

Walker shrugged off the suggestion there’s no back worthy of a first-round pick in this draft, something that hasn’t happened since 2014.

“I don’t really have a response to the critics,” he said. “I know how much work I put in, and how much other guys put in. So the people that criticize and talk, that pretty much goes in one ear and out the other. …

“I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating. Me, I just want to make the best of my opportunity. And whoever drafts me, they’re making a great choice.”

Walker has met with several teams in Indianapolis, though he declined to name them Thursday. But there are no shortage of potential landing spots in the draft, and teams like Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Miami are among those with obvious needs at the running back position.

When teams ask him to point to his best performance, he doesn’t hesitate. It was that late-October afternoon in East Lansing, where he rushed for 197 yards and a record five touchdowns in a nationally-televised game against the Wolverines.

“It has to be the Michigan game,” Walker said, smiling. “That was my best game and it was my favorite game.  I was able to showcase everything during that game. And through all four quarters, I felt like I was getting better.”

As for what he needs to get better at to make a difference at the next level, Walker knows teams have questions about his receiving ability out of the backfield. He shows good hands, but simply hasn’t had many chances to show it in game action since high school. Walker caught only 13 passes last season for the Spartans.

“But I believe I’m an all-around back,” Walker said. “If I need to go run a route out of the backfield, I can do that. Or if I need to get a yard on third down, I can do that as well.”

And if an NFL team needs a running back? Well, they might want to listen to the man.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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