Kenneth Walker III’s path to NFL will be guided by a longtime Michigan State football fan

Detroit Free Press

INDIANAPOLIS — As a sports agent, Ben Setas operates in the gray space between the college and pro levels. There are no real allegiances here, no loyalties to one team over another. He’ll conduct business with one NFL franchise, then move onto the next, working on behalf of clients from schools big and small.

Among the most famous athletes in his portfolio is Kenneth Walker III, the Michigan State football sensation who ran for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns last fall during his lone season in East Lansing, sparking a surge few saw coming. Not even Setas did, and he bleeds green and white far more than most.

An East Lansing native, he grew up going to games at Spartan Stadium and the Breslin Center, rooting for his parents’ alma mater. He carpooled to elementary school with the children of former MSU coach Nick Saban, whose daughter would eventually marry Setas’ brother. The connections deepened when Setas enrolled at MSU, where he served as a manager for coach Tom Izzo during the Spartans’ trips to the Final Four in 2009 and 2010.

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If anybody understood the magnitude of Walker’s MSU contributions, it was Setas. With keen interest, he watched the running back’s meteoric rise from transfer to star and the Spartans’ transition from a rebuilding project to a contending program under coach Mel Tucker. Before Setas began working with Walker, he cheered for him.

“I’m a fan. I went to school there,” Setas told the Free Press this week from the NFL combine. “I appreciate what he did for our university. The impact that this guy made, the plays he made in big-time games, I don’t think anybody could have expected that.”

Three years ago, none of it seemed possible. Then, Walker was a three-star recruit, rated below 2,163 players in the 2019 class. Only one Power Five program, Wake Forest, offered him a scholarship, so he went there following his senior season at Arlington High School in Tennessee. The lack of interest in Walker befuddled his coach, Adam Sykes. How could they not see what he did? The vision. The agility. The burst. The production. Walker could find the end zone from anywhere. He scored 44 times in his final two years at Arlington, where Sykes played him every snap he could.

“That was probably one of the more frustrating parts of the whole recruiting process,” Sykes told the Free Press. “We knew he had the talent to definitely perform well.”

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But it wasn’t until 2021 when Walker’s ability could no longer be ignored. Even last March, the ex-Demon Deacons running back was viewed as just another newcomer on a massively remodeled roster.

A sudden offensive improvement seemed unlikely, especially at running back. In 2020, as MSU stumbled to a 2-5 record in Tucker’s first year, the Spartans netted 91.4 rushing yards per game — MSU’s lowest average dating back to 1947. There was only so much one man could do, right?

Setas, who is close to Tucker and had inside access to his favorite team, contemplated that as he heard buzz about Walker’s athleticism during spring practice. Staff members told him Walker was better than advertised, that he was for real. Setas believed the hype but still doubted MSU could leap forward even with Walker leading the charge.

“God knows if they expected that,” said Setas, the 33-year-old president of SportsTrust Advisors, an Atlanta-based agency. “You go into the season and what we think we’re going to be as a football team and I’m like, ‘Man, if we get to a bowl game, we’re going to have a hell of a year.’”

Setas and his fellow Michigan State diehards got far more than anticipated. Walker ran 75 yards for a touchdown on the season’s first play from scrimmage, triggering an 8-0 start capped by a thrilling triumph over Michigan to end October. Almost overnight, Walker became the face of a remade program, emerging as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate and the premier college running back in the sport. After the Spartans finished 10-2 in the regular season and earned an invitation to the Peach Bowl, Walker declared for the NFL, completing his remarkable ascent.

“It’s been a lot,” Walker said. “A lot going on.”

That is an understatement, and one delivered Thursday at the Indianapolis Convention Center, where Walker stood in front of a throng of reporters at the NFL combine. Arguably the top prospect at his position, Walker finds himself in an unfamiliar spot. Once overlooked, he is being scrutinized at a near-microscopic level. Media members and scouts alike have pressed him about his speed and whether he can catch the ball consistently. Others asked about his goals, which he has itemized on paper in the past.

“I want to be Rookie of the Year,” he said without hesitation.

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No one would doubt he can accomplish that — least of all Setas. Walker, who goes by “Kenny” these days, is Setas’ first client from Michigan State. The partnership is meaningful to both. Through Setas, Walker gets to maintain his connection to a program that changed his life, one that he thanked for taking a chance on him even as MSU brass expressed their gratitude for choosing them.  Setas, meanwhile, has the privilege of representing a player who ushered his alma mater’s football team into a new era.

In the neutral world where Setas operates, the kinship he feels with Walker is unique.

“He has a love for East Lansing,” Setas said. “He has a love for that university.”

That affection is shared by his agent, who is now running alongside Walker toward a better future, realizing how cool it is that they’ll cover this new ground together.

“It’s special,” Setas said. “It’s definitely special.”

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter

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