The early buzz surrounding the potential 2019 NFL Draft class is centered around the defensive lineman, mainly the Clemson duo of Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. And while Wilkins and Lawrence offer appealing traits and fairly high ceilings, Virginia Tech's Ricky Walker is flying under the radar.
He shouldn't be. Walker pops on film in a big way and it's time for that to be exposed.
2017 was Walker's first season as a full-time starter and he took full advantage, racking up 41 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
The Hokies defense only returns five starters on the unit from last year's squad, and Walker has an important season in front of him to build off his breakout season in 2017 and to assume a critical leadership role.
Teammate and Hokies' starting quarterback Josh Jackson's comments at the ACC Kickoff event on Walker speak to the respect he has from the locker room.
“He is the captain of this team,” said Jackson. “He’s the leader. He’s the bell cow, the pail holder. He’s who everybody on our team should look up to and respect.”
Tech Head coach Justin Fuente echoed similar comments.
“Ricky is there every day and does exactly what we ask him to do,” Fuente said. “It’s about encouraging others to come along and reach that accountability is the important thing for Ricky. We’re seeing him do that. He’ll have to speak more. Cause Ricky, when [he] speaks everyone listens to [him]. When [he] speaks I listen to [him]. I have that much respect for him. Don’t be afraid to wield that sword so to speak.”
Producing on the field is paramount for Walker to have the leadership impact expected of him and I have no doubt that he will. Let's examine his skill set to show why Walker deserves more hype than he's currently getting.
There are numerous intriguing traits that Walker offers, but my favorite is the energy he brings on a snap-to-snap basis. Playing with tremendous urgency and an unrelenting motor, Walker quickly fires of the ball and wins with first contact to control blockers, work through gaps and penetrate the line of scrimmage.
On this rep, those traits show up. Walker works through the a-gap while controlling the down block from the center. He battles through contact, finds the football and finishes for the tackle for loss.
Notice on this next rep how Walker wins with first contact. Firing out of his stance with low pads, Walker plays under the blockers pads. He understands that the offensive tackle is trying to reach his inside shoulder, leverages the block and again finds the football to finish. Walker has sharp mental processing skills to complement his physical upside and that's why his playmaking upside is exciting.
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, Walker isn't a massive interior defensive lineman but he excels in a penetration-style role. Walker is effective attacking a single gap, but it's the lateral mobility to complement his penetration skills that makes him so appealing.
NFL offenses feature a mix of gap-power and zone runs that spreads defenses out and stresses its ability to defend every blade of grass on the field. Having a interior defensive lineman like Walker who that can work laterally is valuable.
Walker showcases his ability to work down the line of scrimmage on this next rep while also using his hands to keep his pads clear of blockers hands.
Walker best projects to a three-technique role in the NFL but that doesn't mean he can't anchor and control the line of scrimmage. This next clip illustrates Walker's ability to play with leverage and win at the point of attack while shedding the block and getting involved with the finish. I also love how sharply Walker reads the blockers set. The offensive guard attempts to drive block Walker but he beautifully fights pressure with pressure and disengages.
Walker showcased growth as a pass rusher last season and his toolbox has plenty in it to become an impact interior pass rusher in the NFL. His vision, hand usage, burst, motor, flexibility and variety of counters are translatable components of his game that are needed in the NFL to apply heat on the quarterback.
On this rep, Walker hits a club-swim combo while demonstrating the flexibility and burst needed to work his hips through the gap and sack the quarterback.
Walker's traits and on-field play impress as much as the comments his teammates and Hokies' coaching staff have made about him this offseason. The high-character and leadership qualities raved about are extremely important to NFL franchises.
Walker is an ascending NFL draft prospect that is primed for a big year. Don't forget him when discussing the ACC's best defensive lineman.