Asked about how much better of a football player sophomore safety Jordan Walker is now than he was a year ago, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Rusty Wright called it "night and day."
Walker was put through the ringer as a redshirt freshman, starting eight games for the Mocs in 2022. It was hard, but he also knew he was following in the footsteps of Brandon Dowdell and Jerrell Lawson, former UTC safeties who manned the defensive backfield prior to him.
"I saw how those guys prepared and came into the game, so I tried to take every little bits and pieces from them and come out here and display what they did out here," Walker said. "I just wanted to keep the legacy going on here on this field. Coach Wright always tells us that this has to mean something to you, and I took it upon myself to just buy in to everything coming into the game, not just when I get out here, the little buildups that it takes to get to Saturday.
"I'm taking all of that serious, and I'm taking all the knowledge in that my coaches are giving me and just playing and doing work on the side on my own, and just continue to work hard each and every day so when Saturday comes, the game is very slow to me out here and I can just go out, have fun and play fast."
A week after being named Southern Conference defensive player of the week for his 11-tackle performance with his first career sack in a win against Kennesaw State, Walker was flying all over the field at Finley Stadium again Saturday night. He had four tackles and his second career interception in the Mocs' 48-3 drubbing of The Citadel in the SoCon opener for both teams.
It was already an impressive performance, only enhanced by the fact he had tweaked an ankle in practice on Tuesday, to the point that Wright wasn't sure if Walker would even be available when the Mocs (2-1) faced the Bulldogs (0-3).
"It shows you what kind of kid he is and what he wants to do," Wright said. "He has an opportunity to be a really, really good player in this league for the next couple of years."
Walker said nothing was going to keep him off the field Saturday, giving credit to the sports medicine staff, led by Nate Barger and Evan Wilson, for getting him healthy enough to play, adding that "they did their job, so I had to do my job tonight."
After a season-opening loss to North Alabama in which UTC gave up 517 yards, the defense has allowed just 441 yards combined in its wins over Kennesaw State and The Citadel.
The challenges continue to get more difficult this week as UTC travels to face reigning SoCon champion Samford (1-2, 0-1), which has averaged 299 passing yards per game so far. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. Eastern on Saturday in Birmingham, Alabama.
The Mocs have goals -- including winning a SoCon championship -- that won't be easy but are definitely attainable. One thing they've tried to do this year is take things week to week, because they feel that in recent seasons they looked too far ahead and didn't focus on what was immediately in front of them.
They believe that if they do that, the rest will take care of itself.
"We've got to continue making the main thing the main thing, cut out all distractions, cut out the outside noise and just stay in our bubble and continue to work hard each and every day," Walker said. "We have to put in the extra work and just go out and have fun in the game. This is a fun game to play, and once a team is having fun doing this, I feel the sky's the limit for us."
Especially if players like Walker continue to grow and improve.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org.