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Broad shoulders

Pat Leonard | Friday, September 17, 2004

He did not request the hype. He didn’t even want it. But when Darius Walker got to Notre Dame, he received a jersey with the number three – and, some would say, the expectations that came with it.”I guess it worked out for me,” Walker said.The situation is too much of a coincidence. The true freshman from Georgia jumped from promising recruit to celebrity status after igniting the Irish running game in last week’s 28-20 upset of No. 8 Michigan, wasting no time in displaying the big-game potential of former number three wearers Joe Montana and Rick Mirer.”It was a big spark,” tight end Anthony Fasano said. “He added a difference maker and a person to see the holes we were creating.”Fans regarded the son of former Arkansas defensive tackle Jimmy Walker as one of the few bright spots in an overall disappointing recruiting class last winter, but nobody expected Darius Walker to get 31 carries in the season’s second game – against one of Notre Dame’s biggest rivals.”I felt all along at some point this year he would have some impact on a football game,” head coach Tyrone Willingham said.Walker put 12 points on the scoreboard and totaled 115 net rushing yards, doing it all with the weight of Notre Dame tradition labeled clearly on his back.

The number threeEven sub-par Notre Dame fans – the ones who think Rocket Ismail was the name of a NASA space shuttle – know the significance of the number three. Montana, Mirer and Ron Powlus are only some of the legendary Irish alums to sport the symbol. Playmaker Arnaz Battle graduated in the spring of 2003 and no one stepped up to carry the torch. Then Walker arrived in South Bend, oblivious to the number’s availability, but it did not matter. The jersey found him.”I actually wanted a single digit number,” Walker said. “I was No. 7 in high school and that was something I was pushing to get. Carlyle Holiday decided to keep the number and three was the only single digit number left.”Walker wore the number three proudly Saturday, whether he was speeding into the right corner of the endzone or stiff-arming tacklers on his way to the left corner. His accomplishments came as no surprise to his head coach.”I had the opportunity [in practice] to watch his style, watch his ability to see things, and just make yardage out of things that didn’t seem to have much yardage,” Willingham said. Walker’s skills would exist whether he was wearing the number three or the number 33.But the parallels between Walker’s timely Saturday performance and those of past great number three’s are eerily similar.The most notable moment came in 1980, when kicker Harry Oliver – number three – put a 51-yard field goal through the uprights with no time on the clock to beat – that’s right – Michigan.No one expected the wind to subside as Oliver booted the clincher, and no one expected Walker to carry such a load in his first outing – not even the freshman himself.

The workloadWalker has not lost a game he has played in since losing the state title game during his freshman year of high school. Walker’s Buford High School went on to win the Georgia AA state title in his final three seasons, dominating opponents by wide margins. And though Walker was an integral part of the offense, the team didn’t need to heap all of the responsibility on their star back’s shoulders.”It was very seldom [to carry the ball 30 times in high school],” Walker said. “So the [Michigan] game was very rough.”Walker carried the ball 31 times against the Wolverines. He hit open holes and gained solid yardage, solid especially for a team that had rushed 22 times for just 11 yards in the previous weekend’s 20-17 loss to BYU.”He loves playing the big game,” running backs coach Buzz Preston said. “He’s hungry to do great things.”Walker was able to score a record 46 touchdowns in high school, breaking the Georgia state rushing record of 45 held by former NFL running back Herschel Walker – no relation.But Darius Walker’s familiarity with the endzone did not show when he commented on the two he put past the Michigan defense Saturday.”It was my first [two] college touchdown[s], so it was a little sentimental for me,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that I was out there at first, and then to score a touchdown made it a little crazy for me.”Walker became the first freshman to rush for two touchdowns since quarterback Matt LoVecchio did in a November 2000 win over Southern California. He was also the first freshman running back to notch a pair of scores since Autry Denson scored twice in a 44-14 Notre Dame win over Air Force on Nov. 18, 1995.All of the statistics, all of the praise, and what does Walker’s coach have to say?”It was just about what I expected to see from him,” Willingham said.Willingham saw Walker in practice and felt confident in the ability of his recruit, but even some of the players closest to Walker on the field had little clue about what impact he could have.”I wasn’t sure what to expect,” quarterback Brady Quinn said. “Obviously I give him the ball and [we] ran the … plays for him [to] see what he [could] do with it.”Behind an offensive line that showed improvement from the weekend before, Walker jumpstarted a rushing attack that keyed a Notre Dame victory.

The sweeping effectAsk offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick if he has reached a point where he is comfortable with the installment of the West Coast offense and he will reply in a blunt statement.”Definitely not,” he said after beating Michigan.If the offense isn’t there yet, Walker has definitely brought it closer.The struggling Irish could get nothing going against the five-defensive back set of BYU in the first game of the season, and the play-calling resorted to unsuccessful short passes and runs.Notre Dame coaches started sophomore Travis Thomas (six carries, two yards) at tailback. They used senior Marcus Wilson (nine carries, 22 yards). They even inserted junior Jeff Jenkins to block on passing downs. With Ryan Grant out with a sore hamstring, coaches were scrambling for options.Walker traveled, but he never saw the field. Part of the reason could be coaches’ concern about Walker’s pass blocking abilities.”The most difficult thing, when you talk about a passing offense – and this is everyone involved – is the word ‘protections,'” Willingham said. “I don’t have any idea what Darius had to pass protect against in high school, but I know it wasn’t a 246-pound middle linebacker.”Walker may have to work on his pass protection, but Diedrick believes the advantage an improved running game gives to the entire rest of the team is indisputable.”There’s a tremendous advantage in having and maintaining good field position both for the offense and the defense,” Diedrick said. “You can start all the way back on your own goal line and get into single digits of percent of teams who are able to drive the length of the field.”Wearing a single digit on his chest and back, Walker’s rushing prowess could make Notre Dame one of those statistical single digits.”I try to be a back that can do it all,” Walker said. “I want to be a back that has the power to run over you, but I also want the speed to outrun you. I want to be an all-purpose back. I try to do the best I can in everything.”

Handling the spotlightWalker’s early season accomplishments have brought unprecedented media attention to the wide-eyed freshman. But that attention – and sharing the weight of a program’s expectations – is no strange concept to one of Walker’s teammates.”You have to [handle yourself well],” said Quinn, who threw 59 passes in his first start as a freshman last season. “No matter who it is [talking about you], this is Notre Dame. Every time you have a good game, the [media] are going to be saying stuff. You got to stay level-headed, grounded and working hard.”Walker’s performance does not establish him as the only threat for Notre Dame, either. Grant was still recovering from his hamstring injury during the Michigan game and could get the start Saturday at Michigan State.Walker welcomes Grant as the senior back.”Ryan and I talk all the time,” the freshman said. “We are very close. He tells me to keep working hard and is just a great person and a great back. It is unfortunate that he has his hamstring problem, and I hope that he comes back and does well.”The maturity and intelligence Walker displays during interviews indicates the type of player Willingham has professed recruiting since he signed his five-year contract.”He’s a good young man,” Preston said. “[He’s] very intelligent, sharp; as folks can tell he can articulate. He really has a bright future if he can keep it going in the right direction.”Walker will try his hardest to keep it going as Michigan State approaches with its eyes focused nowhere else but on the source of Notre Dame’s offense.”I am a used to [being a target] from high school,” he said. “I guess I have a bit of a target on my back after that last game.”Walker now wears a target along with his number three, both symbols of what he has meant to the Irish thus far.