November 4th, 2014

Walker progressing quickly as a Cat

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Roy Walter

Assistant Editor


Walker progressing quickly as a Cat
Former St. X star Charles Walker has played in every game as a true freshman at UK / photo courtesy of University of Kentucky athletics

Charles Walker was a workhorse running back at St. Xavier who game after game plowed through opposing defenses. But when he attended the University of Kentucky’s summer football camp last year, the Wildcats’ coaches saw something different in him.

They saw a slot receiver.

After a lengthy recruiting process, Walker signed with UK as a preferred walk-on, and it didn’t take him long to make it onto the field on Saturdays. He has played in all eight of the Cats’ games, is a regular on special teams and has gotten in on several plays as a receiver.

Walker said UK’s coaches told him when they were recruiting him that they expected him to compete for a spot right away, so he isn’t surprised to be playing so soon.

“I knew that if I came here and worked my tail off that there definitely was a chance I could be getting in,” he said.

But UK wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord called it “very unusual” for a walk-on to get playing time right off the bat.

“It’s really hard for any true freshman, scholarship or non-scholarship, to play in all of the first eight games,” Mainord said. “It says something about his ability. … He loves playing and they’re using him on every one of the special teams and we’re using him on offense periodically, so he’s making a name for himself early.”

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Walker rushed for 822 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior at St. X. He was the ninth-leading rusher in Kentucky and likely would have surpassed 1,000 yards if he hadn’t missed 2½ games with a nasty thigh bruise. For his career, he ran for 2,641 yards and 33 touchdowns.

But he wasn’t disappointed when UK told him it wanted to turn him into a slot receiver, a position he played for a few snaps at St. X.

“Due to my size and me not being the tallest, strongest guy, we decided that playing slot would be better for me here and I’ve adapted to it,” Walker said. “It’s been an adjustment, to say the least. I didn’t run too many routes in high school.”

Part of the adjustment involves getting used to playing against college athletes — and Southeastern Conference players at that.

“The speed,” Walker said, “it’s a lot faster than high school and every player is as athletic as can be, starting with the D-linemen back to the safeties.”

And part of the adjustment involves technique.

“I definitely have to get my footwork better,” he said. “I’m learning how to evade defenders when needed instead of a lot of contact like running back was. But it’s nothing I can’t handle.”

UK’s coaches liked what they saw from Walker at last year’s summer football camp and recruited him as a receiver, not as a running back.

“We just thought he had some of the tangibles that we look for in an inside receiver,” Mainord said. “He’s got good speed. He can change direction and not lose much speed, what we call sticking his foot in the ground. He can stick his foot and change direction very well. And he had natural ball skills. Those were the things that stuck out when he was at camp and have continued that way since he’s gotten here. We’re pleased with where he’s at.”

The freshman, who is called Chuck by his UK teammates, has caught one pass this season, a 4-yarder in the 17-7 win over Vanderbilt.

Walker grew up cheering for both UK and the University of Louisville. When he was weighing his options for playing in college, he had final choices of a scholarship from Western Kentucky and offers to be a preferred walk-on at U of L, Penn State, Vanderbilt and UK.

“Every other school was great as well, but in the end, me and my family decided this was best for me,” he said.

As a preferred walk-on, Walker was invited to come to campus early in the summer to work out with the team, learn the system and make use of the weight room and conditioning programs.

“And there was the seven-on-seven stuff that the guys do during the summer that they do on their own,” Mainord pointed out. “He just kind of got in with the guys and got a chance to mold with his future teammates a lot earlier than some of the rest.”

That gave Walker a jump-start on preparing for the season, but he still had to compete with the returning starters and other scholarship players for playing time.

However, his God-given athletic ability, determination and strong work ethic helped him beat the odds and get early playing time.

“He’s a real physical kid,” Mainord said. “He loves to be physical. He’ll block, he’ll hit you and he just sells out. He plays really hard and has fun playing. I think that’s his best intangible, that he loves playing football and will do whatever we ask him to do and do it to the best of his ability.”

Like all young players, Mainord said, Walker has things he needs to work on. The areas he mentioned are Walker’s technique, strength and mastering the Cats’ offense.

He said Walker is coming along faster than he expected and should get better with time.

“He’s a strong kid for his age,” Mainord said. “I didn’t know how physical he could be and how well he’d hold up, but he’s done really well in that aspect. That’s the hardest thing for freshmen to have a lot of the time. He came in and really worked hard in the weight room before he got here and it continued when he got here, and it’s really shown.”

A year ago, Walker was a star at St. X, but going from a go-to guy to playing a much less prominent role wasn’t a huge deal to him.

“I just love the sport of football and I love playing with my team,” he said. “… You don’t have to have the ball in your hands to make a big impact on the team, so that’s what I’m trying to do now.”

And Mainord said that shows through loud and clear on and off the field.

“He’s a great guy,” Mainord said. “He’s just one of those kids that everybody likes and has a good consistent attitude every day that other guys look at. He just lights up the room when he walks in. He’s a stand-up guy and a hard worker.  It’s a pleasure to coach him.”

Walker said that his Catholic background and playing for a strong program like St. X’s helped prepare him for football and academics at UK.

He stays in close contact with his former teammates and follows St. X games via Twitter.

“I haven’t been able to make a game yet,” Walker said. “I hope and believe they can make it far enough that I can on our bye week.”

The Wildcats won’t have that break in their schedule until Nov. 21, which falls during the week before they take on Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on Nov. 29.

The Tigers will host Daviess County on Friday in the first round of the Class 6-A playoffs. They would have to win that game and then beat the Manual-McCracken County winner in order to still be playing on the third Friday in November. If both teams keep winning, St. X will play archrival Trinity that night.

And Walker believes the Tigers will still be alive.

“They’re playing great ball,” he said, “and I think they’re going to keep on getting better and should have a shot at the championship.”

 

 

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