Across his 23 seasons as Virginia Tech's defensive coordinator, Bud Foster has developed countless talented players and engineered top-ranked defenses on a yearly basis. Since becoming the Hokies' defensive coordinator in 1995, Foster has coached 48 NFL Draft picks on his side of the ball. He knows what a great football player is and how they fit into a great defense.
When asked about senior defensive tackle Ricky Walker, Foster used the word "elite" to describe him.
"In my opinion he’s a stud," Foster said. "He’s a warrior. He’s an elite football player. Elite young man all the way around just how he goes about everything he does.”
With the East-West Shrine Week fast approaching, I spoke with Walker about what it meant for Coach Foster to call him an elite football player.
"Coming from Coach Foster and how respected he is and the knowledge he has for the game, it's an honor for him to say that. Last year in my junior year when he labeled me as the bell cow, that's when I realized how much my hard work was paying off and it wasn't going unnoticed. I'm appreciative for that. People are realizing my skills, my assets and my ability to play this game. I'm grateful to be coached by him and be around him everyday."
Walker's relationship with Foster was invaluable to his development as a player and now NFL Draft prospect. Leading and setting the standard in terms of hard work and consistency, Walker benefited greatly from Foster's example.
"How he goes to work each day and handles his business. He lives an hour away form Blacksburg and he's there every morning and never late. How he prepares and game plans each week is incredible. I'm grateful to have played for him. His history and background... it was an honor to play for him and learn from him these last five years."
After studying Walker's game film over the summer in preparation for the 2018 season, I also took notice of his ability. On a 2017 Hokies' defense that produced five draft picks, including first-rounders Tremaine and Terrell Edmunds, Walker was a standout on the unit.
2017 was Walker’s first season as a full-time starter and he emerged as a playmaker, racking up 41 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks en route to Honorable Mention All-ACC Honors. A second-team All-ACC selection in 2018, Walker was still among the standouts in the conference but the Hokies' team success was far under the expectations we've become accustomed to with the program. With a 6-7 record, Virginia Tech had its first losing season since 1992.
As part of the Hokies defensive unit that returned just five starters from the 2017 squad, it was a difficult season for Walker.
"It was very challenging -- more than I thought it would be. After spring ball, I knew we were young and needed time. Camp and summer were solid but then season came and we lost to Old Dominion early. It was frustrating because we were losing games, not because of the other team but because of us. We weren't executing and doing the little things we were taught. Coming from me, a fifth-year senior, who has been around and knows what it takes, I preached to the young guys to listen to the coaches. Last year we had a top-5 defense in the country to this year, it was definitely frustrating. "
The standout of the unit, Walker garnered the attention of his opponents but was still able to draw some positives from a challenging season.
"Teams were focused on game planning against me with double teams. I was banged up at the beginning of the year and it was frustrating. I was glad we kept the bowl streak alive and that we beat UVA. That was important for me and our seniors. The team is young and talented and should have a bright future."
Not to be lost in a down year for Virginia Tech was Walker's continued development as a player. Take this play for example.
Facing a third-and-one "gotta have it" down, Walker took over the play. Firing off the ball with low pads and a high level of urgency, Walker split the double team, got into the backfield and made a tackle for loss. Knowing they would have to contain Walker on a critical down and distance, Miami sent multiple blockers after him but Walker was still able to penetrate and make the play. The mark of a great player is when a team is intentional about taking them out of a play, but it doesn't matter. Walker fought pressure with pressure and controlled the rep.
In order for Virginia Tech to keep its streak of reaching a Bowl Game in every season since 1992 alive, the Hokies had to beat Marshall in the final game of the season to be bowl-eligible. As mentioned before, keeping the streak in tact was important for Walker, and he did his part to ensure it would.
On the very first play of the game from scrimmage, Walker's strip sack shortened the field for his offense, and the ensuing Virginia Tech lead was one that the Hokies would never relinquish. Walker did a perfect job of establishing a half-man relationship with his blocker, using his hands to soften the rush angle and ripping around the edge of the offense center to make the sack. His vision to perfectly attack the center on this rep is outstanding and he set the tone immediately in the contest with a game-changing play. The NFL craves defensive tackles that can generate penetration and apply pressure in the face of quarterbacks and Walker can do just that.
Participating in the East-West Shrine Game next week, Walker has a huge stage in front of him to build momentum and improve his draft stock. His goal for the week?
"To interview well and go out there and dominate on the field. To anyone who is doubting me and putting me on the back-burner, I want to show those guys what kind of person I am and most importantly, what kind of player I am."
Dominating at the Shrine Game would greatly increase Walker's draft stock. He's been training in Tampa Bay to prepare for the event over the last few weeks, all part of his goal to hear his name called in April.
"I may not be the biggest or strongest guy but turn the film on and you'll be impressed."
Walker certainly impressed legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Now it's time for him to prove that to NFL scouts, executives and coaches.