Notre Dame running back Darius Walker surprised most of us when he announced earlier this year that he would be skipping his senior year of college football to enter the NFL Draft. This past weekend it was Darius and his family who were surprised when the draft ended after seven rounds and DW was still waiting for a call that never came. It was a tough way for a fine young man to end a notable college football career.
Coming out of high school, Darius was one of Ty Willingham's most heralded recruits. He was a top player coming out of the deep South, a region that Notre Dame had not been recruiting well, and his high school credentials included breaking touchdown records that had been set by the great Herschel Walker. Darius lived up to the hype very early, playing in eleven games as a freshman and rushing for nearly 800 yards.
For the next two seasons (2005 and 2006) DW was the feature back in Coach Weis' prolific offense, working his way into the Notre Dame record books in many statistical categories. From a Notre Dame press release:
Walker leaves Notre Dame as the fourth-leading rusher in school history with 3,249 yards. His 693 all-time carries ranks third on the school's career list and his 90.3 yards per game career average also ranks third in Notre Dame lore. This past season, Walker became just the fourth Fighting Irish player to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in consecutive seasons joining Vagas Ferguson, Allen Pinkett and Autry Denson. He is the school's record holder in career receptions by a running back with 109.Where would Darius have ended up on those career records lists had he stayed at Notre Dame for another year? I think it is a mistake to assume that Walker would automatically have added another 1,000 yard season to his resume' and appreciably enhanced his historical position.
Travis Thomas has moved from linebacker, where he played last year due to team need, back to running back. Thomas (a starting linebacker) carried the ball just 18 times last year, but he averaged 6.0 yards per carry and had a longest run of 43 yards. Darius, on 255 rushing attempts, averaged 5.0 yards per carry and had a longest run of just 39 yards. These numbers highlight one of Walker's biggest shortcomings as an elite running back - explosiveness. Or, more accurately, the almost total lack of explosiveness.
Darius Walker is a very smart running back, who quickly learned a sophisticated offense. He mastered the running, pass-receiving, and pass blocking aspects of Coach Weis' pro-style scheme. He has great vision as a back, good hands, good feet, and toughness. But he is not very big, he is not a punishing runner, and he does not have breakaway speed. He can find a crease or slip a tackler to turn a 2-yard loss into a 3-yard gain, which he was called upon to do far too often behind a disappointing offensive line. Unfortunately, he could not turn the corner and take it to the house. He could not slip a tackler on the screen pass and outrun the rest of the defense to the end zone. Although a great possession back, he was never a quick-strike, big play threat. As a fan, it was frustrating to see Darius catch the ball on the swing pass with an open sideline in front of him and know that he was only going to gain twelve yards before the pursuit caught up to him.
Travis Thomas brings with him more of a sledge-hammer style at running back, as well as more big-play ability. In addition to Thomas, James Aldridge, Junior Jabbie, and incoming freshmen Armando Allen and Robert Hughes are all expected to compete for carries next season. I think Darius realized that he was not going to be the feature back in 2007, but rather one of several backs sharing the load. The result would likely have been a much more modest statistical year for him, and he is probably right that his NFL draft prospects would not have improved much, if at all. How high will you be drafted if you're not even the dominant player at your position on your college team?
Darius was surprised and disappointed by the weekend's results, and I was surprised and disappointed for him. Although I never figured him for a top pick, I did figure his production in college made him a very viable middle-rounder. But all is not lost. The
Chicago Bears Houston Texans have signed Walker to a free agent contract, and I think he has a realistic opportunity to have a productive NFL career, for the same reason that many Notre Dame players have had good careers despite being picked late in the draft or going undrafted altogether. He is a fundamentally sound player from a top-flight college program, he played in a pro-style offense and is smart enough to quickly pick up NFL schemes, he is a hard worker and a good character guy. He will outlast flashier guys with more "talent" because of these important attributes.
So I wish Darius Walker well. Good luck in the NFL. And thank you. Thanks for picking Notre Dame at a time when other premiere high school players weren't giving us the time of day. Thanks for working hard and playing hard. Thanks for going to class and representing the University with class on and off the field. And thanks for your mom and dad.
[05/04/2007 UPDATE: Apparently earlier reports that Darius had already signed a contract with the Bears were premature, and Darius is still without an NFL home. I'll update again when we learn more.]
[05/09/2007 UPDATE: The South Bend Tribune has reported that Darius has signed a contract with the Houston Texans.]