RENTON, Wash. – The question was about his pass catching, but few actually heard the answer. Not as Seahawks running back coach Chad Morton was walking by.
Running back Kenneth Walker III was fielding questions Thursday during his first news conference since the end of last season, when Morton screamed out: “They stole that rookie of the year! It should have been you!”
This provided the segue to what a lot of us scribes were wondering as soon as Walker stepped up to the podium. After tallying 1,050 yards on 228 carries in 11 games started last year, the Michigan State product finished second in the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year voting behind Jets receiver Garrett Wilson.
When asked about his reaction to the news that came almost four months ago, Walker was candid: “(I was) kinda frustrated. But it happens. I can’t make those decisions. I just gotta come out here and do my best and get better.”
Did you think it was yours until it wasn’t?
“Yeah. I thought I was going to win it. Garrett Wilson is a great player, though, I’m not taking anything from him.”
But the difference between Wilson, who was selected 10th overall and Walker, who was picked 41st, is that the former was expected to make an immediate impact as a starter. Walker was initially positioned as the No. 2 running back behind Rashaad Penny, until a broken fibula sidelined Penny for the season.
So Walker went from second to first on the depth chart and from first gear to fifth on the field. He had 88 yards on eight carries in the game Penny got hurt in New Orleans. He had 97 yards on 21 carries in his first game as a starter the next week vs. Arizona. And then there were the 167 yards on 23 carries he put up the following Sunday vs. the Chargers, catapulting the Seahawks to perhaps their most impressive win of the season.
Walker has never been much of a talker. But his game spoke into a megaphone over that stretch. The skepticism fans and media felt about the Seahawks selecting a running back midway through the second round disintegrated. Then came weeks 9-12, when Walker ran for 126 yards on 39 carries over the span of four games.
If Walker lost the OROY award, it was because of that stretch. All that skepticism came back to life. Had the league simply figured out the rookie, as they do so many young players? Had his Barry Sanders-lite style become more of a weakness than it was a weapon?
It appeared that way, until advice from the coaching staff finally landed with the Memphis, Tennessee native: Hit the holes hard. Doesn’t mean you can’t improvise later, but no need to start dancing the second the ball is handed off to you.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll called it a “style-wise shift.” It shifted Walker’s production, too, as he racked up 107 yards in Week 15, 133 in Week 16 and 114 in the final game of the regular season to seal his breakout status.
But as the 22-year-old said, he’s still gotta get better. So has he, coach?
“It’s really not hard to elaborate on the offseason that he’s had. He’s worked so hard,” Carroll said. “His confidence, his explosiveness, his quickness, his ability to run the routes and catch the ball. He’s doing everything. He’s catching punts, he’s catching kickoffs, he’s doing everything he can possibly do.”
Pass catching has seemed to be a point of emphasis for Walker since the end of last season, even though he did log 27 receptions for 165 yards last year. He’s always been able to catch the ball. He just didn’t play at colleges (two seasons at Wake Forest and one at Michigan State) where passing was emphasized – hence his 19 receptions in three years.
Now he’s spending more time with the receivers. Now, he’s accustomed to a system that could prove overwhelming to a first-year player – even if he ended up as one of the best first-year players in the NFL.
“It’s much easier,” Walker said. “I know the plays; I know what to expect on offense and vs. the defense. It’s much easier. My head’s not spinning from when I first got here.”
So instead he’ll focus on spinning opponents’ heads. Seems likely barring an injury.
Right or wrong, Walker felt his rookie award was stolen. Doesn’t mean the second-rounder can’t still go down as one of the Seahawks’ great steals.