Why Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III, Jayden Reed are Heisman hopefuls

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EAST LANSING — Jayden Reed feels Kenneth Walker III is worthy of the growing Heisman hype.

“I mean, the tape says it for itself,” Michigan State football’s wide receiver said Wednesday. “Kenneth, he's a great ballplayer. He's explosive, he makes guys miss. And that's all displayed on tape. There's not much to talk about, it's some we all see.”

And while the Spartans’ running back continues to lead the nation in rushing, more eyes are focusing on the all-around resume Reed is building to join Walker in the conversation to be a candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Michigan State Spartans wide receiver Jayden Reed (1) and running back Kenneth Walker III (9) celebrate after a touchdown against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers Saturday, Oct. 02, 2021.
Michigan State Spartans wide receiver Jayden Reed (1) and running back Kenneth Walker III (9) celebrate after a touchdown against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers Saturday, Oct. 02, 2021.

The junior ran back a punt return for a touchdown for the second straight week in No. 11 MSU’s 48-31 win Saturday over Western Kentucky while catching four passes for 127 yards and a 46-yard touchdown as well as a second 46-yard throw from Payton Thorne on the Spartans’ second scoring possession.

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Reed leads the Football Bowl Subdivision at 176.6 all-purpose yards per game, averaging 39.6 yards on five punt returns and 30.7 yards on six kickoff returns to rank eighth nationally in that category. His two punt return scores are tied for the FBS lead.

The 6-foot, 185-pounder from Naperville, Illinois — who transferred to MSU from Western Michigan after earning freshman all-American honors in 2018 — also has 20 catches for 463 yards this season. His 23.2 yards per catch average is fifth nationally, his five receiving touchdowns rank 12th and his 92.6-yard receiving average is 24th. Reed also ran for a score, and his eight total touchdowns are 15th in FBS.

“It's all really like kind of a blur to me,” Reed said. “I didn't really even know I was leading the nation in all-purpose yards, honestly. I'm just going with the flow, doing what the coaches are telling me to do. Things just happen when you're patient and you follow the plan.”

Michigan State's Jayden Reed, left, returns a punt for a touchdown as teammate Ben VanSumeren (13) blocks against Western Kentucky during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich.
Michigan State's Jayden Reed, left, returns a punt for a touchdown as teammate Ben VanSumeren (13) blocks against Western Kentucky during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich.

Walker, a junior who transferred from Wake Forest in the offseason, ranks first in the FBS at 136.0 rushing yards per game, fourth in total touchdowns (nine) and scoring (10.8 points), sixth in rushing TDs (eight) and 16th in all-purpose yards (139.4). According to odds released Monday by betonline.ag, Walker went from off the board before the season to a 33-to-1 favorite to become MSU’s first Heisman Trophy winner, the eighth-best candidate currently.

“I don’t really get into (personal goals) that much,” Walker said after running for 126 yards and three touchdowns Saturday, “but that is a dream of mine, to win the Heisman.”

Thorne, who was Reed’s high school quarterback, believes both of his teammates “absolutely” are deserving of the national attention.

“You look at them, and just if you look at the statistics, we got a guy leading the country in rushing and then the other guy's leading the country all-purpose yards. When you just hear that, you'd say that those are the type of guys that should be in those conversations,” Thorne said. “I definitely believe that they deserve to be in those conversations, for many reasons. That's just one of those reasons.

“I think that they've been electric so far this year, and it's our job to keep it rolling with what they got going right now. so yeah I definitely think that they deserve that.”

Michigan State's Payton Thorne, left, and Kenneth Walker III celebrate after beating Western Kentucky on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Payton Thorne, left, and Kenneth Walker III celebrate after beating Western Kentucky on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

As for being mentioned with Walker in the Heisman mix, Reed balked at the talk and instead brought up team goals. The Spartans (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) play Saturday at Rutgers (3-2, 0-2), with a noon kickoff televised on BTN.

“Oh, I don't know. I mean, I've kind of put that to the side now,” he said. “I'm more focused on getting wins and getting to the Big Ten championship. I don't get too involved in the hype, that's kind of how I've always been.”

Other backs

Running backs coach William Peagler agreed with Walker being in the Heisman conversation.

“I think you'd be lying if you said you weren't familiar with that being out there,” Peagler said, adding the native of Arlington, Tennessee, needs to continue doing what he’s been through his first five games with the Spartans to earn that and other national and Big Ten postseason accolades.

“The kid's got a really strong mentality, and you can see that from the way he works in the offseason and in the game. I mean he wants the ball 35 times a game, which most great backs do. And he's just got the right mentality to be successful.”

Michigan State running back Jordon Simmons (22) runs against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Michigan State running back Jordon Simmons (22) runs against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Walker’s 100 carries, going for 680 yards, are by far the most in MSU’s backfield. Sophomore Jordon Simmons has 36 attempts for 179 yards, while all nine of the carries between Donovan Eaglin and Elijah Collins came against Youngstown State and Harold Joiner’s three attempts were in the opener against Northwestern.

Peagler said the Spartans’ coaches are managing Walker’s workload in various ways, between going into games with plans to rotate the other running backs and trying to minimize the wear and tear on the starter.

“Sometimes, obviously, the flow of the game dictates how that goes. But for the most part, we have a plan on how to rotate them,” Peagler said. “And we're making sure that the amount of plays that (Walker) is playing isn't all carries and vice versa and just trying to find ways to get the right approach to where he's at his best in the fourth quarter, which I think you've seen him be at his best in the fourth quarter in every game so far this year.”

Injury updates

Michigan State running back Elijah Collins (24) runs for a touchdown against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Michigan State running back Elijah Collins (24) runs for a touchdown against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Peagler said Collins, who ran for nearly 1,000 yards as MSU’s starting running back in 2019, initially got hurt in the final week of a strong preseason camp and only played on special teams vs. Northwestern. The junior has missed the past three games since scoring on his lone drive against YSU, which he totaled all 52 yards – 32 yards on three carries and a 20-yard catch for a TD.

It appeared Collins injured his left foot crossing the goal line.

“It's one of those situations where, with Elijah, we'd love to get him back and see where he fits in the rotation,” Peagler said. “But we're not gonna play three and four backs probably in most games like we did last year. There might be some situational things where we feel like that fits best.”

Defensive line coach Ron Burton also did not have an update on the status of starting defensive end Drew Beesley. The sixth-year senior injured his right lower leg and rode off on a medical cart against Nebraska, returning to watch the second half from a stretcher with a boot on his foot. He has 11 tackles, including 2.5 sacks.

“When he's ready, we'll be ready,” Burton said. “He's here every day, he's doing his job. He's a team leader, and he doesn't miss anything. What he's done is a testament of what that young man is all about.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Can Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III, Jayden Reed win Heisman?