Vols’ Walker savoring first bowl in his four college seasons

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee redshirt junior defensive back and Georgia Tech transfer Wesley Walker celebrates a stop during the 34-27 overtime win at Pittsburgh on Sept. 10.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee redshirt junior defensive back and Georgia Tech transfer Wesley Walker celebrates a stop during the 34-27 overtime win at Pittsburgh on Sept. 10.

When Alabama junior running back and former Dalton High standout Jahmyr Gibbs was asked in a recent news conference about why he decided to compete in this Friday afternoon's Sugar Bowl and not opt out, his answer made perfect sense.

"I was always going to play since I've never been in one," Gibbs said. "I wanted to experience it."

Wesley Walker was a class ahead of Gibbs when the two were Georgia Tech teammates, and Walker also will be vying in his first college postseason game Friday night when Tennessee and Clemson collide in the Orange Bowl. The 6-foot-1, 204-pound redshirt junior defensive back has already played twice against the Tigers and has already played in Hard Rock Stadium, which houses the Miami Hurricanes.

"Clemson is a really disciplined and savvy team," Walker said last week. "I have a good idea on the way they run their plays. I'm just going to go back and watch our old games when I was at Georgia Tech and remember what was going through my head as I was playing in the game.

"I would say that I have a good feel for what they're going to do and what they're going to try and do."

The Volunteers resumed Orange Bowl practices Monday with a workout at Barry University.

While Gibbs transitioned this season from a versatile star of the Yellow Jackets to a versatile star of the Crimson Tide, the story has been a little different for Walker. After making 13 starts during Georgia Tech's 2020-21 seasons, the former three-star signee out of Ensworth High in Nashville was mostly a backup behind Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough, the two starting safeties for the Vols, and behind Tamarion McDonald, the starter at the "star" position.

Walker didn't start until the 56-0 victory at Vanderbilt in the season finale, when Flowers was out with an injury, so there has been somewhat of a trade-off between less playing time personally and more success with a team. Tennessee's 10 triumphs this season are one more than Walker experienced in three years with the Yellow Jackets.

"It's really just going through it day by day and it being a process," Walker said of having to come off the bench. "You can't get down, because you know your opportunity can come at any moment. I've just kept the same weekly process and have prepared as if I was starting.

"There was nothing that really changed for me, honestly."

Walker amassed 93 total tackles, two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles during his last two seasons with the Yellow Jackets, and his first season with the Vols has yielded 33 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and three pass breakups. Though he has played the star for most of his career, Walker has been working this month at strong safety, and he does not have a preference between the two.

"I just really like being an eraser when plays happen," he said. "When stuff goes wrong, you can't let it be a big gain. You've got to get the ball carrier on the ground, and then there are other plays when you can use your instincts."

One of Georgia Tech's most lopsided defeats during Walker's time in Atlanta occurred in 2020, when UCF shredded the Yellow Jackets 49-21 in Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Knights were in their third and final season under coach Josh Heupel, and when Heupel left Orlando for Knoxville in January 2021, Walker figured there might be a better opportunity in his home state.

Walker enrolled at Tennessee this past June.

"I came here to play in big games and win," Walker said. "I could see when I got here that it was already trending that way."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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