In Wake of Rashaad Penny Injury, Seahawks Counting On Ken Walker III to Shine – Sports Illustrated

RENTON, Wash. – In what has become an all-too-familiar scenario for the Seahawks over the past five seasons, the team must advance forward without the services of star running back Rashaad Penny, whose injury misfortunes struck again when he suffered a season-ending fractured fibula in Sunday's defeat to the Saints.
In the past, Penny's extended absences – which resulted in a total of 27 missed regular season games over a four-year span – often coincided with former starter Chris Carson and other backs missing time with injuries of their own. Back in December 2019, after he tore his ACL in a loss to the Rams, the backfield situation became so dire coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider had to persuade Marshawn Lynch to come out of retirement to suit up in the season finale and playoffs.
Looking to avoid history repeating itself, the Seahawks proactively made running back a positional priority heading into the 2022 NFL Draft back in April. Even after rewarding Penny with a one-year contract after breaking out in the final six games last season, they used one of their two premium second round picks on Michigan State's Ken Walker III as an insurance policy, tabbing the reigning Doak Walker Award winner as their feature back of the future.
Ultimately, Carroll and Schneider would have preferred to see the talented Penny curb his prior durability issues and stay healthy for the duration of an entire season to fulfill his immense potential. But now that the former first-round pick has been shelved for the season once again, it's Walker's time to shine and demonstrate why Seattle made a smart investment picking him 41st overall.
“I’m ready. We practice it every day. I feel real comfortable with the offense," Walker told reporters following Sunday's defeat. "I’ve got older running backs in there to teach me everything that I need to know, so I feel real comfortable in the scheme.”
During the early stages of his first training camp, Walker looked primed to play a significant role for the Seahawks right away as a complementary back rotating with and even playing alongside Penny. Breaking off several big runs out of the backfield and surprising with soft hands as a receiver that rarely were utilized at the college level, he flashed the speed, quickness, and suddenness that made him a Heisman Trophy candidate in the rugged Big Ten last season.
But just when Walker started to get rolling, he underwent a procedure to repair a hernia after Seattle's exhibition opener in Pittsburgh. He missed the remainder of training camp and the preseason, putting him behind the eight ball a bit heading into his rookie season.
Though he made a swift recovery, Walker didn't play in the Seahawks season-opening win over the Broncos, instead making his NFL debut the following week against the 49ers. Although he made a few splashy plays in his first three games, he also had a pair of run calls where he went the wrong way after the snap, leaving quarterback Geno Smith hanging out to dry with nobody to hand the ball off to and consequently putting his team behind the sticks.
Referencing these typical rookie mistakes and his time missed due to injury, coach Pete Carroll expects Walker to continue going through some growing pains due to limited reps up to this point. But as evidenced by an exhilarating 69-yard touchdown run against New Orleans that briefly gave Seattle a fourth quarter lead on Sunday, his talent is undeniable and he should only improve as he gains invaluable experience in coordinator Shane Waldron's offense.
“He’s just getting comfortable with the timing of hitting the line of scrimmage, seeing the blocks at full speed, and he’s just getting comfortable," Carroll said of Walker's readiness on Monday. "He’s going to get a lot better. He will get more and more feel working with the guys, he hasn’t had that many turns yet. It’s obvious that he can do it and he can hit it, there’s no question about that."
In a perfect world, Seattle would have been able to slowly bring Walker along with Penny playing the bell cow role and let the rookie get his quick feet underneath him. All along, that was the plan, especially after he missed most of the preseason and lost invaluable game reps. He remains a work in progress in several areas, most notably pass protection where he allowed three pressures on three blitz pickups on Sunday.
Unfortunate circumstances, however, have dictated that won't be the case from here on out and he will be asked to develop on the fly. Without Penny available for the remainder of the season, the Seahawks will be banking on Walker stepping into his shoes and generating chunk plays out of the backfield to keep the offense both balanced and explosive, proving the organization made the right call drafting him as early as they did.
Thrust into the starting lineup whether he's ready for the big stage or not, Carroll hopes to see the electric Walker grab the bull by the horns and blossom in the role quickly, ensuring Seattle won't miss a beat offensively moving forward.
"Taking full advantage of all of the opportunities that come up, that’s going to take a little bit, but at this point, he’s not going to have any time to keep patiently waiting. He’s going, so this is a really great opportunity for him to jump to the front, see what he can do with it, and we’re counting on him to do stuff in a big way.”
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