Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker III declares for NFL draft, opts out of Peach Bowl

Chris Solari
Detroit Free Press

Kenneth Walker III is one and done.

The star Michigan State running back declared for the NFL draft and announced via Twitter on Thursday that he plans to skip the 10th-ranked Spartans’ Peach Bowl showdown with No. 12 Pitt on Dec. 30.

“It has been a true honor to represent Michigan State University and wear the Green and White,” Walker wrote in a statement. “I am beyond grateful to Coach (Mel) Tucker and the entire staff for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to shine under their leadership. As the regular season has come to a close, I would like to announce that I have decided to forgo playing in the Peach Bowl to begin preparation for the NFL Draft.

“I would like to thank God, my family, teammates, fans and all my coaches over the years for helping me become the player and man I am today. I will forever be a Spartan Dawg.”

The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Wake Forest transfer won the Walter Camp Football Foundation’s player of the year award, the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back and the Big Ten running back of the year, as well as earning unanimous first-team All-America honors and first-team All-Big Ten. He also was a finalist for the Maxwell Award as the nation’s most outstanding player and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Walker ranks second in the nation and first among Power Five players at 1,636 rushing yards and 136.3 yards per game, and his 18 rushing touchdowns are tied for fifth in the Football Bowl Subdivision. He has led the nation in rushing for all but three weeks this fall and also leads the FBS in rushing yards after contact (1,154), carries of 20-or-more yards (21) and missed forced tackles (89).

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"I want to congratulate Ken for all his success and thank him for taking a chance on us," Tucker said in a statement. "From the day he set foot on campus in January, he has done nothing but work extremely hard and represent Michigan State University with class. He quickly earned the respect of his teammates and coaches, and they were happy to share in his success and accolades.

"He is a special player, and I'm proud of everything he was able to achieve this season. K9 will always be a Spartan Dawg."

Kenny Pickett, who finished third in the Heisman voting and won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as the nation's top upperclassman quarterback, has yet to announce if he plans to play for Pitt (11-2) against MSU (10-2) in the Peach Bowl.

Walker was MSU’s highest vote-getter in the Heisman since Tony Mandarich finished sixth in 1988 but did not receive an invitation to the presentation ceremony in New York. Walker's only year as a Spartan ranks fourth in single-season MSU history in rushing yards, 1 behind Javon Ringer in 2008, and Walker tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns in a single year.

“I told him a few days ago, we had a nice conversation,” Tucker said Monday. “I said, 'Listen, the awards — the ones you win, the ones you don't win — they don't define you as a person or as a player. And just keep that in mind. We appreciate you. You've worked really hard to get what you have and to get where you are today. And just because you did or didn't win an award, that doesn't change who you are, it doesn't change what you've done.'

“He's a very humble, hard-working guy. He's very, very competitive. I personally wanted to see him invited to New York for that, but it didn't happen. But it really doesn't take away from from who he is as a person, who he is as a player.”  

Kenneth Walker III has declared for the NFL draft and will not play in Michigan State's bowl game.

Walker revived an MSU run game that languished for the better part of three years, not having a rushing touchdown from a running back for a span of 701 minutes and 24 seconds of football, nearly 11½ games.

He changed that immediately. Walker’s first carry and the team’s first play of the season went for a 75-yard touchdown, part of a 264-yard, four-TD debut on 23 carries in MSU’s win Sept. 3 at Northwestern. It was the seventh-best single-game rushing total in MSU history.

Along the way, Walker ran for 233 yards in an Oct. 9 win against Rutgers that included a 94-yard touchdown, the longest play from scrimmage in MSU history, on which he juked and ran away from defenders and shared an iconic handshake in the open field on the way to the end zone with wide receiver Jalen Nailor.

“I think everyone knows what type of player he is,” Tucker said of Walker. “From the first play of the season all the way to the last game of the year in the snow and playing through adversity and working through injuries and things like that, he always gave us everything. He's a tremendous, tremendous player. He's a difference-maker, and you can see that reflected in the awards that he did receive.”

Walker became the first player ever to score five touchdowns against Michigan in its 142-year football history and finished with 23 attempts for 197 yards in the Spartans’ 37-33 victory over the Wolverines on Oct. 31. His 23-yard scoring run with 5:08 to play gave MSU the lead for good. It was one of eight games in which Walker ran for more than 100 yards.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.