HOUSTON — It was already a noteworthy introduction of Kenneth Walker III to Wake Forest football fans. Walker, a freshman running back, picked up three first downs in his first eight carries against Rice on Friday night, churning out some hard-earned yards.
It was Walker’s ninth carry that elevated him into history books — and lifted the Deacons to a comfortable lead early in the fourth quarter.
Walker, 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, hit a hole through the middle like he was shot out of a cannon, and it propelled him down the right sideline, through a few feeble tackle attempts, to one final cut, and into the end zone.
Ninety-six yards, the longest run in program history, and Wake Forest’s final touchdown in a 41-21 victory.
It was the exclamation point on a night that justified some preseason hype built around Walker, a lightly recruited player from the Memphis, Tenn., area. Walker finished with 125 yards on nine carries, proving why his ascent in the backfield pecking order was so significant during fall camp.
“He had a great camp. He’s going to be a great player here, as long as he continues to work and, obviously, you saw what he can do with a great, explosive touchdown,” senior linebacker Justin Strnad said of Walker.
Friday night wasn’t technically Walker’s first game — he played last week against Utah State. But he didn’t take a snap in the backfield against the Aggies, and the only time he touched the ball was on a kick return.
He wasn’t even supposed to touch it that time.
“I have no idea why he fielded it. That was Christian (Beal-Smith)’s ball all the way in, I guess (Walker) wanted to get in the stat book,” Coach Dave Clawson said last week. “He did freshman things, but his effort was good. We certainly want to get him in there. I think we’d like for him to have a similar role to what Christian had a year ago.”
That process was accelerated Friday night with news that senior running back Cade Carney wouldn’t play against Rice. With Carney out, the Deacons turned to Beal-Smith as the starter and Walker became the No. 2 running back.
Walker’s first two carries of his career were a 3-yard run on second-and-1 and a 6-yard run on third-and-1.
“He had a good week of practice, and it’s a freshman playing his first game — yeah, that’s a tough role, that, ‘I’m going to play, but I don’t know when or how much,’ ” Clawson said Friday night. “We definitely were going to make a commitment to get him in today, and I thought he ran the ball hard and well and, obviously, the 96-yard run was a great run.”
Remember all the way back to a week ago, when Wake Forest struggled in short-yardage situations? Walker first pinballed his way to picking up those first downs — displaying the running style that elicits appreciation with some annoyance from Wake Forest’s linebackers.
“We love Kenneth, Kenneth challenges us every day in practice. He’s explosive, jittery, so just to see him, all the work he’s put in in practice, to see it translate to the field, we were so happy for him,” sophomore linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr. said.
“He’s shifty, really shifty kid. But he’s also got some girth to him, so I mean, he can really kind of do everything,” Strnad said. “I think he’s going to be a great player for years to come, and I look forward to seeing what he can do.”
Wake Forest’s defensive players weren’t the only ones taking notice of Walker’s eagerness to showcase himself during games.
“It was funny, during that play, Jamie (Newman) and I, we were just hoping he would get in because we knew how bad he wanted it,” said senior wide receiver Scotty Washington, who also had a career day against the Owls.
How much of a chance Walker will have next week against North Carolina is likely to be mystery until kickoff.
Carney’s injury status wasn’t known until less than an hour before Friday night’s kickoff. Clawson said the hope was that he would be able to play, but that “he had a strain and … he just didn’t feel right pregame. So we just (said), ‘Let’s not risk him.’”
At the least, Wake Forest showed it has two capable running backs behind Carney — Walker and Beal-Smith both scored touchdowns and combined for 167 yards of offense.
And at the most, Wake Forest provided the first taste of what Walker could bring to the table for years to come.