By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – After the first two games this season, Tarran Walker was one really tired football player.

That’s because he was constantly on the field, starting at running back on offense and middle linebacker on defense for the Muskegon Big Reds.

Then fellow senior Tommy Watts started to get some playing time at running back, and had a string of good games. That relieved Walker of most of his ball-carrying duties and allowed him to focus largely on defense.

That turned out to be very bad news for opposing offenses, because a well-rested Walker is a wrecking ball on the field.

He leads the Big Reds with 81 tackles on the season. He was particularly brilliant in Muskegon’s last two playoff games, recording 13 stops and one sack in a 48-10 win over Cedar Springs and 11 tackles and one sack in a 51-10 win over East Grand Rapids.

While running backs score a lot of points and get more attention from the media and public, Walker says he had no problem with Watts taking over his role on offense.

Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield hands the regional title trophy to No. 9 Tarran Walker after the Big Reds’ defeat of East Grand Rapids. Photo/Louis Murray

“It was tiring,” said Walker, who still gets some playing time on offense, mostly in blocking roles. “The last time I played both ways was my sophomore year. I was happy when Tommy stepped up and started to play like he is now. I think it’s saving my energy some. And I like playing defense. I like running around and hitting people.”

All that matters, according to Walker, is getting the Division 3 state championship trophy back to Muskegon High School after a one-year absence.

He was called up to varsity in 2016 as a freshman, and was in uniform when the Big Reds lost a last-minute heartbreaker to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 29-28 in the finals.

He played on the 2017 squad that went 14-0 and beat Farmington Hills Harrison 28-10 in the championship game. Then Walker and his teammates had to suffer through the disappointment of a  41-28 loss to Detroit Martin Luther King in the finals last year.

Muskegon, 12-0 this year, will play in the state semifinals against DeWitt on Saturday at 1 p.m. at East Kentwood High School. A victory would give the Big Reds their fourth straight berth in a state championship game, and the opportunity to put last year’s frustration behind them.

“We’ve only won it once in the last three years,” Walker said. “It’s real frustrating. I didn’t like seeing the seniors’ faces after losing the state title. I don’t want to be one of those seniors who feels that pain.”

Walker prepares to make a tackle for Muskegon. Photo/Tim Reilly

The Big Reds’ last two seasons tell you something about the importance of defense.

In 2017, Muskegon only gave up only 88 points in a perfect season that ended with a state title. That was the least amount of points given up by any Big Red squad since 1996, and that was only a 10-game season.

Last year the Big Reds slipped a little, giving up 276 points in 14 games. They still made the finals, but didn’t bring home the hardware.

This season Muskegon is super stingy on defense again. The Big Reds have only surrendered 85 points, three less than the 2017 squad. That includes three consecutive shutouts in the middle of the season, including two straight against Mona Shores and Reeths-Puffer, teams that often scored a lot of points.

Does that mean another state title is around the corner? Of course there’s no guarantee of that, but Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield certainly likes the way his defense has been performing.

“We’ve only given up one score in the first quarter all year,” Fairfield said. “In the last few games we’ve allowed no points in the second half at all. If you take away the 400 yards of offense that East Grand Rapids had, we’ve only given up about 600 yards in 11 games. The numbers are crazy. This defense has done an amazing job this year.”

The coach has a lot of respect for the way Walker gave up his ball-carrying role and adjusted for the sake of the team.

“I’m sure he would still like to carry the ball, but he’s like (star quarterback Cameron Martinez) – whatever is best for the team is OK,” Fairfield said. “We never heard a peep out of him about it. He’s happy with his role and being part of the team.

Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield, who will try to guide his team to a fourth straight appearance in the state finals. Photo/Jason Goorman

“He still plays a lot of offensive snaps, but he doesn’t get the ball at all, because others have been doing such a good job. But you see number 9 leading quite a few times on those plays. He’s a very good blocker. He’s also our long-snapper for punts and short-snapper for PATs.

“He understands what’s at stake from here on out. It’s win or go home. He’s leaving it all on the field, and is playing very well, very confident. Our defense is kind of designed for him to run around and make plays.”

Walker is just one of many standouts on the Muskegon defense. The list includes Tyreese Oakes, Julius Sims, Myles Walton, Kolbe Lewis, Billie Roberts, Jordan Porter, Billy Johnson, Desjuan Lindsay, Detrick Fondren, Demetrius Walker, Tre’von Cosse, Pierre Johnson and several others.

Walker said the group is close-knit and likes to have fun, but the players also understand when it’s time to get down to business.

“We all just like having fun and being around each other,” he said. “In practice we like to joke around a little, but we know how to get serious when it’s time. We feel real confident. We know our coaches have a good game plan. All we have to do is execute.”

The Big Reds will be facing DeWitt for only the second time. The two teams played in 2017, when Muskegon rolled to a 45-0 victory in the regional round of the playoffs en route to the state title.

The Panthers have not been perfect this season. They enter the semifinals with a 10-2 record, with regular-season losses to Portland in Week 2 (29-27) and East Lansing in Week 5 (21-2). But they have won seven straight since then, including playoff victories over East Lansing in a rematch (21-13), St. Johns (40-7) and Edwardsburg (35-14).

DeWitt, under longtime coach Rob Zimmerman, has a long history of long playoff runs. The Panthers have advanced to the state semifinals 10 times since 2001, most recently last year, when they lost to Detroit King, one week before King beat Muskegon in the finals. They advanced to state championship games and lost in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2013.

DeWitt, which has qualified for the playoffs all but one year since 2000, is a team obviously hungry to take that next step.

“They have a winning tradition,” Fairfield said. “They’ve won a lot of football games. They have a multiple-formation offense and love to throw it around and do different things, and they play fundamentally sound defense.”