The twisting, over-the-shoulder catch that Kenneth Walker III snagged with his fingertips during UCLA’s season opener hasn’t dissipated into the ether of an oppressively humid Texas afternoon. It lives on in the mind of the receiver, who says he has watched the play about 10 times.
“It doesn’t get old,” Walker said of his 62-yard touchdown reception Saturday against Texas A&M, the most dramatic part of the Bruins’ 15-point comeback in the fourth quarter of an overtime defeat.
There was a time when Walker refused to watch any part of a game filled with UCLA highlights.
He was with the Bruins in San Antonio preparing for the Alamo Bowl in December 2014 when he received a call. Pack your bags, Walker was told. You’re going home. Your grades aren’t good enough to allow you to play.
Walker sat with his mother while UCLA defeated Kansas State. They didn’t talk football, much less watch the game. It didn’t take long to reach a consensus.
“No matter what it takes,” Walker recalled, “just get your degree.”
Nearly two years later, Walker has emerged as a dual threat. A senior, he has twice made the UCLA Athletic Director’s Honor Roll since being ineligible for the bowl game and has erased his label as the fast guy on the football team who can’t hang on to the ball.
Walker caught every pass within his grasp against the Aggies, finishing with career highs in receptions (six) and yards (115).
“I was so proud of Kenny, man,” Bruins receiver Darren Andrews said. “A lot of people had counted him out and said he wasn’t a good receiver, so I think he proved a lot of people wrong.”
The biggest knock on Walker was his hands. The first pass of UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen’s career was a perfectly placed spiral that could have easily gone for a touchdown against Virginia last season had Walker not dropped the ball.
Like other receivers, Walker spent extra time working on his technique and nearly wore out a series of ball-launching machines. There was also a mental component that seemed exclusive to Walker. He focused on positive reinforcement, which should perpetuate itself after he hauled in the pass that appeared destined to hit the Kyle Field turf Saturday.
“Usually I wouldn’t go for that ball because it was a hard catch,” Walker said, “but I just got it in my head now, it’s more confidence, like go for anything. If it’s in your area, go for it, and that’s what happened.”
No one ever doubted Walker’s speed. He was one of the nation’s top hurdlers at Richmond (Calif.) Kennedy High and finished the 100 meters in 10.66 seconds last spring at the Pac-12 Conference championships, earning sixth place despite having practiced only a few days before the meet.
“It’s kind of hard,” Walker said of his track exploits, “because I know I’m faster than what I’ve shown.”
The same could have been said about his grades. Walker arrived at UCLA with ambitions of becoming a math major but switched his focus once he realized his schedule was already plenty demanding. He dabbled in psychology and sociology, making the honor roll as a freshman, but couldn’t find a subject he found compelling. His grades plummeted, leading to the bowl ban and that hard conversation with his mother.
“He’s a smart kid,” Bruins Coach Jim Mora said, “he just decided it was time to apply himself because his options if he didn’t stay in school, they weren’t terribly exciting options.”
Walker had endured a hardscrabble existence for much of his childhood. There were anger issues that led to fights and what Walker described as “other dumb stuff” through middle school.
The teenager didn’t talk much, expressing himself mostly through poetry, before family strife caused him to turn further inward. His namesake father was a part-time presence in his life until Walker was sent to live with him for four years after some troublesome behavior.
The situation got worse when Walker’s father lost his job. The family had almost nothing.
“I was barely eating,” Walker said. “I didn’t have any money to have lunch at school.”
Walker said a turning point came during his sophomore year in high school, when his parents got back together. Even though they have since separated again, he became more outgoing and now tries not to hold things in when he gets angry, something he said contributed to his history of drops.
There was reason to celebrate last spring when UCLA track coach Darrell Smith spotted Walker at an academic awards banquet. Smith asked his sprinter what he was doing there and Walker started laughing. He was being given a special award for academic achievement.
The Bruins had not received their fall-quarter grades in December when Mora stepped into a huddle during a practice before the Freedom Bowl to make an announcement. Walker, who now majors in Afro-American studies, had straight A’s.
“I was just like, wow, everything paid off,” Walker said, “I’m actually capable of doing this.”
His grades were just like his catches. Something to behold.
Mora said freshman tight end Caleb Wilson had earned a larger role even before making his first career catch against Texas A&M, citing “an element of dependability” that bred confidence. “I believe Josh has that confidence in Caleb,” Mora said, “and we want to get him more time.” Mora said redshirt sophomore Giovanni Gentosi had also earned extra time at tight end and that senior Nate Iese would receive “a little less time” at the position. … Mora said defensive end Takkarist McKinley (groin) was unlikely to play against Nevada Las Vegas on Saturday at the Rose Bowl and defensive end Deon Hollins (concussion) was questionable.