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NFL

Kenneth Walker Doesn’t Waste His Chances

Kenneth Walker runs
Harry How/Getty Images

The question was always when Kenneth Walker III would get the opportunity, not if he would be able to make the most of it. Since the Seahawks took the young running back 41st overall in the 2022 draft, he’s spent the first two months of his NFL career working his way up the depth chart until, on Sunday, he exploded onto the national radar. In Seattle’s 37-23 win over the Chargers, Walker took the ball 23 times and gained 168 yards on the ground, scoring two touchdowns along the way. Highlighting his afternoon was a game-sealing 74-yard TD run in the fourth quarter, in which the rookie took a toss and just blazed through a narrow hallway of lunging defenders to reach a part of the field where he couldn’t be touched.

This run, and this game, weren’t just a note out of the blue but a logical crescendo of Walker’s talents, which have gradually been given larger and larger audiences since he was a teenager. The Tennessee native wasn’t a very notable recruit when he arrived at Wake Forest back in 2019, and even in that middling program he didn’t serve as an offensive centerpiece. However, he did put a handful of eye-catching big plays to tape, hinting at his ability to see the ideal path through a defense, and showing off his quickness that could make it a reality. Check out the way that Walker, in just his ninth career college carry, had the patience and control necessary to wait on his own goal line for a hole to open up, and then fly through when it did.

Though still a relative unknown, Walker’s best work earned him admirers at Michigan State, who snagged him out of the transfer portal as the running back sought more freedom and a bigger stage to show off what he could do.

“He was presented to me by our staff, and I watched his film,” MSU head coach Mel Tucker said last year. “He’s what I call a 10-play guy. If you have to watch more than 10 plays on a player, he’s probably not for you.”

In his first and only year as a Spartan, on a team picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten, Walker carried MSU to an 11-2 season. He put up some gaudy numbers through the fairly soft early part of the schedule, then proved he was for real with a star-making outing against Michigan, where his 197 yards and five touchdowns served as the difference between a thrilling comeback win and an ugly blowout loss.

This game, as much as everything around it, led to a 10-year, $95 million contract for Tucker, which is looking less attractive in the midst of an underwhelming follow-up season without MSU’s go-to weapon. Walker didn’t get an invite to the Heisman show, and that was a bit of a sore spot, but he was a unanimous All-American, a Doak Walker winner as the best running back in the country, and the recipient of an off-brand Heisman, the Walter Camp award. Iowa State’s Breece Hall, who showed more pass-catching ability in college and displayed ridiculous athleticism at the combine, took the honor of first running back drafted this year. But Walker was only a few spots behind. He got $5.4 million guaranteed.

This is a Seattle team that’s shaken off the last of its glory days and is trying to transform itself into something new, with unexpectedly early results. Their defense is still sloppy enough to make Jared Goff look like Johnny Unitas, but even though they ditched their franchise quarterback and don’t yet have anyone who can convincingly fill Russell Wilson’s old cleats, Geno Smith has been able to avoid mistakes and lean on Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf for support. And in the two games since Walker has taken over for the injured Rashaad Penny as the top running option, the rookie has helped the Seahawks pull above .500 and sit atop their claustrophobic division, just above a Three Stooges Syndrome of three-win rivals. Before this weekend’s win against L.A., it was 97 yards and the game’s only offensive touchdown that made Walker the focus of a 19-9 victory over the Cardinals.

“That kid is unbelievable, man,” Lockett said after Sunday’s game. “He’s a star in the making. The way he gets better each and every week, you can tell the more and more opportunities he gets, the more comfortable he gets, and the more electrifying he is. This is exactly why we drafted him. We knew what he could do, and everybody on the team is excited he’s with us.”

Every story about a brilliant NFL running back can’t help but be tinged with a bit of melancholy, because by this point we know the fairly bleak career outlook for the vast majority at that position. With such a high risk of injury, and the way that even a few years of wear-and-tear can erode what makes them special, and the drastically decreased willingness of teams to risk a big commitment for a back instead of piecing one together by committee (especially when, like Walker, they don’t play a role in the passing game), the greats at this position are more meteors than stars. They dazzle for a few years and then struggle to stay in flight beyond the midpoint of their 20s. I don’t expect Kenneth Walker will change anything about that. But damn, he can run.