For Michigan State running back Kennth Walker III, competing for the Heisman Trophy was once a distant dream. Holding only three FBS offers coming out of Arlington High School in Tennessee, Walker was regarded as the No. 2,164 recruit in the class of 2019, according to 247Sports, when he committed to Wake Forest. He wasn't held in particularly higher regard upon entering the transfer portal last offseason, ranking 79th among transfers heading into 2021.
But, sometimes, fit matters more than the ranking. From the moment Walker arrived at East Lansing in the spring, the Spartans coaching staff thought he had a chance to be special.
"I don't think you ever expect the statistical numbers that he's had this year," Spartans running backs coach William Peagler told CBS Sports. "But I did think he was a perfect fit for what we were looking for."
All it took was one play -- one carry – for him to prove them right.
Against Northwestern in the season opener, Michigan State lined up in a tight formation with nine players sitting inside the numbers, clearly telegraphing a run. Instead of rushing into the mass of defenders in front of him, Walker swerved as though controlled by a joystick, sidestepped a tackle and flew down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown -- the first by a MSU running back since Nov. 9, 2019.
Against all odds, Walker has been unquestionably the best transfer addition of 2021 college football season and the face of No. 8 Michigan State's instant rebuild under second-year coach Mel Tucker. Heading into Week 9, Walker ranks second nationally with 997 yards rushing, trailing only Syracuse's Sean Tucker, who has played an additional game. He's notched 200-yard games against both Northwestern and Rutgers, and ran for a school-record 94-yard score against the Scarlet Knights in a 31-13 victory earlier in October.
Walker now has the sixth-best Heisman odds (+1800), according to Caesars Sportsbook,
"In high school, I watched Heisman winners, but being in this position, it's a blessing," Walker said. "I don't even know how to explain it ... you dream of it."
During the abbreviated 2020 season, Michigan State went 2-5 with its losses coming by an average differential of 26.4 points. When the staff sat down and evaluated what went wrong offensively, it didn't take long to identify the glaring hole: the team's running backs failed to score even a single rushing touchdown. Led by a freshman (Jordon Simmons), the Spartans ranked next-to-last in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game and averaged just 2.5 yards per carry. They were among the bottom five teams nationally with just 17 rushing plays over 10 yards.
"After last season, I felt like we needed someone who was an explosive playmaker," Peagler said. "We had a lot of good backs, but I didn't feel like we had anyone who could hit their head on the goal post anytime they touched the ball."
Six-hundred miles southeast in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Walker grew frustrated with a Wake Forest season thrown into chaos by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Demon Deacons only played a single game between Oct. 31 and Dec. 12, a 59-54 loss to North Carolina in which Walker toted the ball 13 times for two touchdowns.
Dave Clawson's offensive system at Wake Forest is built around the slow mesh, in which the quarterback and running back effectively perform a run-pass option as slowly as possible. The read forces the defense to show its disadvantage, and the Demon Deacons have ridden it to perfection in 2021 with a perfect record of their own.
For Walker, however, the scheme was limiting. Ultimately, he decided to opt out of the rest of the season and re-evaluate his path.
"At Wake, I felt like I wasn't able to showcase all of my skills," Walker said. "I believe I can be versatile. I can cut. I can run downhill. I believe I'm an explosive back."
Michigan State's staff did its due-diligence to fix the running game, adding three-star Davion Primm and Auburn transfer Harold Joiner, a former blue-chip recruit. But when Peagler and run game coordinator Chris Kapilovic turned on Walker's tape, they knew they had their guy in the transfer portal-bound running back.
"When I saw his tape, I saw an explosive athlete that had a nose for the goal line, which were two things I felt like we were lacking a year ago," Peagler said. "Once you actually speak to the kid, I think you realize he's a perfect fit for what we're looking for from a culture standpoint."
Walker finished that game with 264 yards rushing and four touchdowns, good enough to be the seventh-best single-game performance in Michigan State history. He followed that up with a monster 172-yard game against Miami in Week 3 to officially put Michigan State, and himself, on the map.
The gaudy numbers speak for themselves, but the other details may be even more impressive. Walker holds the nation's longest streak of carries without fumbling (338 dating back to 2019). He also leads college football with 733 yards after contact and is tied for the first among Power Five players with 41 first-down runs.
"I think sometimes as a running back, we always want to have the big games," Peagler said. "Ken's had a couple of 200-yard games, but sometimes the 4-yard run is the right run. That's something that he's continuously working on and having the realization that there are going to be games like that."
As Walker's numbers have risen, so has Michigan State. The rushing offense has jumped 90 spots from a year ago -- from 122nd to 32nd with the Spartans now averaging 200 yards on the ground per game -- but the benefits have not stopped there. The offense's passing efficiency has gone from bottom 25 to top 25, and the attention Walker demands from opposing defenses plays a major role. Teams can't get away with running a Cover 2 shell when Walker can punish a light box. More directly, Michigan State has scored three flea-flicker touchdowns as defenses frantically crash to take away Walker.
Walker has entrenched himself firmly in the Heisman and All-America conversation. A national rushing title is well within reach, too. Sitting at 7-0 with a top-10 ranking heading into a bitter rivalry game against undefeated Michigan, Tucker and his staff are selling every bit of this momentum to the next generation of recruits. The Spartans' 2022 recruiting class -- ranked fourth in the Big Ten and 17th in the country -- is on pace to be the program's best in at least six years.
"He's proving you can have the success you're looking for here," Peagler said. "We don't feel like we take a backseat to anyone in terms of tradition or what you can accomplish here. Ken is living proof."
After Walker's breakout performance against Northwestern in the opener, the moment everything changed in East Lansing, he found his head coach on the sideline, thanking Tucker for taking a chance on him.
"Are you kidding me?" Tucker told his star transfer, "Thank you for taking a chance on us."