Football: Anthony Walker embracing ‘personal challenge’ against Iowa


Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson

Anthony Walker kneels before a game. The junior linebacker is averaging under six tackles per game so far this season.

Ben Pope, Reporter


Anthony Walker knew what was coming.

On 3rd-and-7, his outside receivers covered, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong would be throwing to his safety valve, tight end Cethan Carter. When the throw came, Walker was already three steps into cutting in front of the pass.

The ball wobbled right into Walker’s breadbasket, with 57 yards of grass between him and a touchdown that would have pulled Northwestern within one score with 11 minutes left to play.

Then it slipped through his fingers.

“I didn’t think I was as close as I was to the ball, and I just tried to stick my hand out to bat it down,” Walker said. “I actually got a good handle on it but wasn’t able to haul it in. That’s a game-changing play that I have to make for our team.”

The missed chance in the eventual 24-13 loss culminated a starkly disappointing first month of Walker’s much-anticipated 2016 season.

After finding his way onto numerous national award watch lists and earning a series of pump-up videos over the summer from the University, expectations were high for the junior All-American. Then came football season. After Walker was hampered by an undisclosed injury during the final weeks of fall camp, he fell oddly silent during devastating home losses against Western Michigan and Illinois State and then struggled against Nebraska’s spread offense.

Now, he’s turned his focus to Iowa — a team that has given him more trouble than any other opponent over his three-year career as a Wildcat — the perfect opponent to transform his mediocre autumn into the exceptional season most expected from the player dubbed “The Franchise.”

New challenges

Walker has gone from the breakout star of NU’s surprisingly dominant defense in 2015 to the focus of opponents’ game plans against NU’s surprisingly underwhelming defense in 2016.

In the week leading up to Nebraska’s visit, Armstrong specifically described the Cats’ linebacking group as “smart,” and the Omaha World-Herald ran a full feature story on Walker. Following the game, Nebraska coach Mike Riley said Armstrong’s read-option keepers — which played off of NU’s linebackers biting on the handoff early — and “edge runs” opened up his run game to rumble for 310 yards.

That level of attention specifically on Walker didn’t existed outside Evanston last year.

“He plays middle linebacker and people are going to block you; that’s the way it goes,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “A year ago, I think people ran a little bit more, especially early (in the season), to the perimeter, and he was unblocked and made a lot of plays unblocked.”

Those changes have made defending tougher for the junior from Miami. And he’s noticed.

“The ball is staying outside a little bit, and if they do run the ball, there’s a lot of traffic for me,” Walker said, chuckling. “But whatever the scheme is, I still have to play within the system. The plays will come. I’m not worried about tackles or anything right now.”

Through four games, Walker has just 23 tackles and 2.5 for loss — a far cry from his stat line of 122 tackles and 20.5 for loss in all 13 games last season.

Certainly a factor in the production decline has been his early-season health issues, which linebackers coach Randy Bates said hurt Walker’s comfort level and aggressiveness in the season’s first two games.

“When you can’t play full speed because you can’t practice full speed, it just takes time to get used to it,” Bates said. “Even one of the better players in the country needs practice … and unfortunately he was not able to get as much, so he’s slowly catching back up but it’s something that takes time.”

Walker seemed to be returning to form on Sept. 17 against Duke, making two tackles for loss in addition to forcing and recovering a critical fumble that flipped the game’s momentum.

Then, against a dynamic Nebraska offense that has averaged 38.5 points per game this season, he took a step back.

“He missed one tackle I think early in the first quarter, he had a chance on one of the reverse plays in the alley (and he) had the ball in his hands that could’ve been a big interception,” Fitzgerald said. “He was around the ball a handful of other times and just didn’t make the plays that I think he’d really want to make.”

Opportunity for redemption

If Nebraska’s spread attack was particularly well-designed to avoid Walker, Iowa’s smashmouth running style is the exact opposite. The Hawkeyes (3-1, 1-0) ran the ball 38 times last Saturday, many directly towards Rutgers middle linebacker Deonte Roberts.

In Iowa City this weekend, Walker could be the deciding factor in whether powerful Iowa running backs Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels run wild on the Cats.

“There’s no question he will get more opportunities than last week,” Bates said.

In the past two meetings, however, he and the rest of the defense have done poorly with their opportunities.

In Iowa’s 48-7 win in 2014 and 40-10 win in 2015 combined, the Hawkeyes outgained NU on the ground by a whopping 515-156 margin. Walker did not record a single tackle for loss in either game.

“I haven’t played well against them at all,” Walker said. “Went there my redshirt freshman year and that was probably one of my worst performances ever, and then last year against them, I didn’t play well either.”

So he and safety Godwin Igwebuike, both scheduled to make their third career appearances against the Hawkeyes, have privately discussed the importance of this year’s matchup, not only in the team’s quest to turn around its 1-3 start but also in their efforts to jumpstart their own play.

“We’ve kind of taken this game as a personal challenge,” Walker said. “Me and Godwin have to make some plays this game.”
Yet again, Anthony Walker knows what is coming: Iowa. This time, he’s hoping his opportunity to change the game won’t again slip through his fingers.

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