By Rob Moseley
The first thing you notice about Joe Walker is the long, curly hair, and that’s ironic.
Ironic because, in every other way, Walker is about as no-frills as it gets. When the soft-spoken, sophomore linebacker for the Oregon football team takes the field for practice each day, there’s no towel hanging from his waist, no sleeves covering his arms – heck, he doesn’t even wear gloves.
“He’s not a real flashy kind of guy,” said Grant Thompson, Walker’s weight-lifting partner and fellow UO linebacker. “After he makes a big play – which he does quite a bit – you don’t see him celebrate and go crazy.
“He doesn’t need to draw attention to himself to show he’s a great player, and that’s how you earn respect around here. He’s a quiet kind of guy, but he lets his play do the talking.”
It has spoken loudly in the eight months since Walker joined the Ducks out of Los Angeles Harbor College. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound native of Palos Verdes, Calif., spent ample time with Oregon’s first-string defense during the spring game in April. He continues to push for a big role as the 2013 season approaches.
Walker’s next chance to prove himself is this afternoon in the Ducks’ first situational scrimmage of preseason camp.
“Who’s going to start, I don’t know,” UO linebackers coach Don Pellum said. “And it really doesn’t matter, because we’ve got to play four to six guys. But he’s a fighter. Those guys will have to fight their (rear ends) off to beat him out.”
Inside linebacker remains the biggest question mark on an Oregon defense that returns all but one member of the defensive line rotation and everyone of consequence in the secondary from 2012 (not counting John Boyett, who played just once last fall). With Boseko Lokombo, Tony Washington, Tyson Coleman and Christian French on hand at the outside linebacker and drop end positions, it still remains to be seen who spells departed starters Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso inside.
Juniors Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have the most experience, but they were sidelined for the spring due to injury. Coleman is an option, but he remains a valuable member of the rotation outside. Rahim Cassell is an emerging presence, but played primarily special teams a year ago; ditto Isaac Ava. Brett Bafaro, Danny Mattingly and Tyrell Robinson have yet to play a snap in college.
Despite his relatively recent arrival, Walker seems like as much a “sure thing” as anybody else in the group right now.
“I don’t know if I expected to be this comfortable (so early),” Walker said. “But I feel like I’ve come a long way, and worked hard.”
His indoctrination began early this year, as Walker had the benefit of enrolling for winter term at the university, in January. That early arrival “helped a lot,” but Walker’s head still was spinning once spring practice began. By the end of April, Walker had received so many practice reps that the game started to slow down, finally.
“It definitely helped me learn a lot,” Walker said. “They just kind of threw me in there.”
Walker endeared himself to his new teammates and coaches off the field, too. He immersed himself in playbook study, and his offseason strength and conditioning drills. Thompson had a strength edge over his new weight-lifting partner shortly after Walker arrived, but within a couple weeks the tables had been turned.
“He hits the weight room just as hard if not harder than anybody else on the team,” said quarterback Dustin Haines, Walker’s roommate.
Walker’s path to Oregon was paved by a recommendation to Pellum by former L.A. Harbor coach Brett Peabody, who is now at Long Beach City College. Walker only played a season for Peabody, allowing him to join the Ducks as a sophomore rather than a junior, but he made an impression, earning all-league honors.
“There’s very few guys (Peabody) has truly recommended to me,” Pellum said. “He called and said, ‘We’ve got your kind of guy.’ And he’s only said that maybe five times in the 15 years I’ve known him.”
In the spring game, Walker made a tackle on the opening kickoff, portending the impact he could have on special teams as well as defense for the Ducks this fall. If there’s one thing coaches still want to see, it’s how effective he can be in pass coverage, an essential element for UO inside linebackers.
“That’s something we can find out, if he can run with a guy,” UO defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. “But he’s special.”
Walker demonstrated his willingness to work and get better yet again Monday afternoon. The linebackers were working on evading a blocking back while blitzing. On his first rep, Walker came in high and was undercut, forced to try and leap over the mock back. Made aware of his mistake, Walker lowered his center of gravity the next time around, easily shed the block and smothered the “quarterback” – in this case a padded blocking dummy.
He’s special, all right. And the way things are going for Walker so early in his career with the Ducks, it won’t be long before he’s known as much more than the guy on defense with the long hair.