COLUMBUS, Ohio — When the Ohio State offense takes the field for the first time following last weekend’s loss to Penn State, the opposing player it will have to worry about most is one Urban Meyer wouldn’t have ever recruited.
Sure, the the gaudy stat lines and ample accolades would tell you now that missing on a player of Anthony Walker’s caliber was a mistake, especially considering he hails from an area where the Buckeyes have only strengthened their pipeline under Meyer. Make one extra call or check out one extra camp in South Florida and perhaps Walker would be spending his storied college career in Columbus instead of Evanston.
But truth be told, even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to blame Meyer for likely not even knowing Walker existed leading up to national signing day in 2013.
At the time, even Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald had his reservations.
“He was like 192 pounds when we recruited him,” Fitzgerald recalled at Big Ten media days this past summer. “The (question) with Anthony was, ‘Was he going to be big enough?'”
Perhaps that’s why when looking back at Walker’s offer list coming out of Monsignor Pace in Opa Locka, Fla., it hardly seemed to project a player who Fitzgerald would just three years later say “has a chance to be the best we’ve ever had” at linebacker. Purdue, Minnesota, Bowling Green, Buffalo and FIU — hardly college football’s blue bloods.
For one of the few times on the recruiting trail, Northwestern held an advantage, even if it was just for the class of 2013’s 61st-ranked linebacker and No. 758 overall player.
“I’m just very happy Anthony was under-recruited,” Fitzgerald said with a laugh.
As for the question of whether the 3-star prospect could gain enough weight to play in the Big Ten, Fitzgerald wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. In fact, when Walker first arrived in Evanston, it appeared as though he had gained too much weight for the start of his college career.
“He came in at 250 (pounds). He was like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man,” recalled Fitzgerald. “He just was jacked. We had to redshirt him and strip all that weight off him and work on his flexibility. I mean, he was a stiff-opotamus.”
“Just trying to do too much too fast,” Walker said of his ill-advised body overhaul. “You think, ‘Oh, I’m going to play in the Big Ten. I need to get bigger,’ but you lose the flexibility that you have. Coach Fitz also won’t point out that I didn’t know what I was doing out there, so of course I was going to play slow.”
Measuring in at a healthy 225 pounds at the start of the 2014 campaign, Walker proved to be worth the wait.
Taking over a starting role at middle linebacker midway through the 2014 season, Walker tallied 51 tackles, nine of which came for a loss, 1.5 sacks and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. That, however, was merely a preview of what was to come in the Miami native’s college career.
In 2015, there weren’t many linebackers in college football better than Walker — at least from a statistical standpoint. Racking up 122 tackles, including a Big Ten-best 20.5 for a loss, four sacks and a fumble return for a touchdown, the redshirt sophomore earned third-team All-America honors as the Wildcats posted a 10-2 regular season.
Known as “The Franchise” by his teammates and hyped with superhero-like highlight tapes, Walker — now weighing 245 pounds — entered 2016 surrounded by no shortage of expectations.
From being named on virtually every preseason award watch list he was eligible for to the forecasting of his NFL future, all eyes for perhaps the first time in his football career are finally on the formerly undersized and overlooked linebacker from the Magic City.
With opposing offenses now game-planning for him, Walker’s numbers aren’t quite as eye-popping this season as they were a year ago, but he still lays claim to 50 tackles, 5.5 of which have come for a loss, and two sacks seven games into his junior campaign. And as 4-3 Northwestern heads to Columbus to take on the 6-1 Buckeyes, Meyer has certainly taken note of the man in the middle of the Wildcats defense.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Meyer said of Walker, who possesses the type of NFL talent Meyer found himself concerned with a week ago as Ohio State prepared to face Penn State running back Saquon Barkley.
Factor in a suddenly struggling offensive line and the Buckeyes should have their hands full with Walker come Saturday.
Unlike in his recruitment, he now has the Ohio State head coach’s full attention.