It wasn't until the Michigan State game that I really noticed Joe Walker. I'd always heard about him in the linebacker rotation but nothing really stood out. Once he went up against the Michigan State offensive line and running backs there was no denying his skills. He stood out as a run stopper that Oregon had been missing the last few years.
A pure bred run stopper was one of the big differences in the game against Sparty. When one of the Spartan's big running backs went up against Walker he didn't fall forward, he was pushed back. When a guard pulled around or mesh blocked to the second level and met Walker, Walker was most often seeing engaging, getting off the block, and making the tackle.
As the season went on we saw more and more of Walker in the rotation until he was a cornerstone of the linebacker unit. Walker routinely filled gaps, shot into the backfield, and used his instincts to make plays at the line of scrimmage and in the backfield. Showing real quickness at 6'2" and 240 pounds is not easy to do but it is clearly evident.
Walker was voted the most improved player and what brought him to that point is his dedication to getting better and never taking a play off. It's very tough to describe the changes I saw from game to game in Walker. His crowning moment from the season was picking up the ball when the Utah player dropped it before the goalline and returning it 100 yards for a score. The play swung the game in favor of the Ducks and was the game changer needed.
This season I'm looking for Joe Walker to take the next step and essentially become a complete quarterback. Oregon has had a lot of guys who were run stoppers and a lot of guys who were great in coverage, but Oregon has rarely seen anyone who was exceptional at both.
I'm thinking of the amount of improvement we saw during last season and then thinking about the offseason. That's so much time to get better in pass coverage and I'm hoping he will be a complete linebacker. Often we saw Walker substitute off the field for a linebacker who was a little lighter and a little faster in pass protection.
As a non-collegiate football coach the room for improvement is in the straight-line speed and hip flexibility to turn and run into space and coverage. The ability to make an offense not identify a linebacker as the weak link to be thrown to and also the ability to be the center of attention of run plays is huge. Dual threat players are what cause havoc for opposing coordinators. Most importantly, it makes everyone else's job on the defense much easier.
I respect Joe Walker a lot for coming back from injuries, gutting it out in Junior College before making it to Oregon, and then turning from a reserve linebacker to one of the standouts on defense. With pass coverage abilities he's a real weapon in the conference and could be the next man up to keep Oregon's defense running even with the turnover. When analysts say "Oregon's defense is soft" I'd love to be able to point to Joe Walker as the only counterpoint I need.