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Football: Once a quiet freshman, Cajun defense leader learned from predecessors

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Aug. 13, 2017

 He arrived at UL in 2013 as a reserved freshman from Brunswick High in Brunswick, Georgia, with much more experience playing basketball than football.

   It’s 2017 now, and fifth-year senior safety Tracy Walker – not shy at all – is the loud leader of the Ragin’ Cajuns defense.  

   “In high school I definitely was in a shell,” Walker said. “I was very quiet.

   “I was an outspoken person, but as far as ‘leading’ in sports I led by example a lot. I wasn’t the vocal person I am today. I didn’t understand how to lead by speaking.”

   These days, Walker is a second-team preseason All-Sun Belt Conference selection.

   He’s one of two Cajuns, along with offensive tackle Grant Horst, who represented UL last month at the Sun Belt’s annual Media Day in New Orleans.

   And now, with play-calling linebacker Otha Peters in preseason camp with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, it’s Walker who has taken command of the Cajun megaphone.

Related: Ragin' Cajuns oozing with optimism at Sun Belt Media Day

   According to UL defensive coordinator Mike Lucas, Walker is doing “the things Otha did – stand up in front of the room, and beat his chest.”

   “Our players have a lot of respect for him. They know what he can do,” Lucas said. “He’ll talk, but he’ll back it up. And that’s what you want.

   “Some guys will get up there and talk and try to lead, but they’ve got nothing to back it up with. Tracy can back it up.”

   How did the metamorphosis unfold?

   Early in his career at UL, Walker said, “The seniors I had, they had a standard of winning.”

   From 2011 through 2014, UL enjoyed four straight 9-4 seasons with four straight New Orleans Bowl victories.

   Walker saw only one option, and it’s the one he and several other Cajun youngsters at the time went with.

   “I had to jump on board,” he said, “and that’s why we were winning.”

When he was an underclassmen, UL’s defense had leaders like current Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Christian Ringo, defensive lineman Justin Hamilton (currently in camp with the Philadelphia Eagles) and linebacker Justin Anderson (who played a couple games for the New York Giants).

   “Seeing all those guys, and just playing with them, I had to step up my game,” Walker said. “I can’t be out there acting like a freshman trying to compete on the ‘varsity’ level.

   “I had to adjust, and get onto the seniors’ level. That made me mature very, very quickly. And I continue to get wiser. That’s why I’m in the position I’m in.”

   It’s a good place to be.

   Walker by no means considers himself the only leader of UL’s 2017 defense.

He reels off the names of defensive lineman Taboris Lee, linebacker T.J. Posey and fellow starting safety Travis Crawford.

 

   “Those guys are leaders as well,” Walker said.

More: Posey locked in the Mike linebacker spot

   It’s Walker, though, who has scurried to the front of the line.

   “I basically just took the knowledge and the wisdom from the older guys, and applied it every day to my life,” he said. “It allowed me to continue to get better and continue to grow.”

   On the field, and off.

   In 2014, when he started the year’s final eight games as a redshirt freshman, Walker had two interceptions and 44 total tackles, including four during a New Orleans Bowl win over Nevada in which he also broke up a couple passes.

   Walker was named to the Sun Belt’s All-Freshman Team after that season.

   In 2015, he was 4-8 UL’s second-leading tackler with 74, broke up six passes, intercepted one at Kentucky and forced a fumble.

   Last season, when the Cajuns went 6-7 with a New Orleans Bowl loss to Southern Mississippi, Walker had 61 tackles including a season-high nine in a win over Arkansas State and a team-high three picks, including one each in a loss at Tulane, a loss at Georgia and a win at UL Monroe that made UL bowl-eligible for the fifth time in six seasons.

   Most of that time, he’s done it with trusty partner and fellow three-year starter Crawford at his side in the secondary.

Related: UL safeties Walker, Crawford don't need to talk 

   Those two, Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said, are now looked up to by UL’s new youngsters as “guys that have been in a lot of battles, some guys that have won a lot of games, that know how to work, know how to prepare.”

   Walker hasn’t always been at safety, however.

   At the start of last season, then-UL defensive coordinator Melvin Smith had moved Walker up to a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive back position.

   But UL was blown away by Boise State in its opener, Smith was immediately fired, Lucas took command of the defense and Walker was right back at safety.

   “We bounced him around to a lot of different positions when I first got there (in 2015). … And I don’t know if he was always very comfortable with that,” Lucas said.

   But did Walker object?

   “He never said a word, never complained,” Lucas said. “Hustled, did his job.

   “I think he’s more comfortable right now. I think you’re starting to see him really blossoming into what he naturally is at that safety position.”

More: Move to safety has UL's Walker feeling back at home

   And just what is that?

   “He’s a very talented young man that can do everything you want from a safety,” Lucas said.

   “He can be a high safety in the deep half or deep middle. He can come down and play man-to-man coverage. He’s got feet and hips to play man-to-man. He’s physical enough you can put him in the box in the run game and step up and stick people.

   “He’s very good at blitzing, and slipping blocks,” Lucas added. “He’s a total package.”

   Oh, and he has a nose for the ball – something UL sure can use when it’s season opens Sept. 2 against Southeastern Louisiana at Cajun Field, followed by visits to Tulsa and Texas A&M.

   Whether it’s enough to get Walker to next level – the NFL – remains to be seen.

   Naturally, he sure hopes so. But if not, he has a plan.

   “If God doesn’t bless me with that opportunity,” Walker said, “I definitely would love to coach and pursue happiness in that area.

   “I want to be a motivational guy, and help mentor high school athletes and young kids to help them be successful – because that’s what helped me a lot.”

Related: Decisions must be made on new Cajuns Trahan, Hill, Mitchell

   It’s not necessarily what Walker envisioned coming out of high school.

  But sitting at the Superdome in New Orleans for the Sun Belt event last month, pondering how far he’s come, and what it’s taken to get there, a reticent Georgia high school product now repping his Louisiana university, it all seems to make perfect sense.

   “To be honest I definitely didn’t see myself in this position I’m in right now,” Walker said. “This is all the blessings of God. If it wasn’t for the man upstairs, I wouldn’t be here today.”

   By going to college, and over his four previous seasons at UL, Walker said he’s learned “how to be a true leader and how to vocalize my opinions.”

   Now, with several of UL’s most-vocal voices from 2016 having finished their seasons – Peters, linebacker and leading-tackler Tre’maine Lightfoot, slot receiver Al Riles (released in June by the Indianapolis Colts) – it’s Walker turn to take a spot at the top.

   He’s practically run up the ladder over the months since last season concluded.

   Walker works with younger teammates on technique when the opportunity presents itself in preseason camp, and brings energy to the practice field when it’s needed most, all with the hope, he said, of getting “everything out of my teammates so we can continue to get better.”

   “I would definitely say I became more vocal,” Walker said, “and I see how much effect I have with my teammates.

   “With Otha and Tre’maine, Al, with those guys gone, I actually see how much my voice really carries on this team, so I definitely had to step it up a lot.”

Related: What did Sun Belt coaches say anonymously about Cajuns?

 



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