College football: Walker connecting

Published 8:11 pm Wednesday, October 25, 2023

By Makenzy Wolford

University of Georgia Sports Information

While not as flashy as “Keep chopping wood,” or Georgia head coach Kirby Smart‘s latest motivational phrase “Eat off the floor” inspired by the All Blacks rugby team, the importance of connection cannot be understated.

The expectations of a program that claimed the college football crown in back-to-back years requires a faith that the one at your side will catch you when you fall. A brother behind you rather than just another number on a flaming-red jersey.

Sophomore linebacker Jalon Walker understands this importance. From coach’s kid to an ambassador of the most coveted team in the land, Walker lives his life forging bonds – bonds that spark both understanding and success.

Walker earned playing time as a true freshman in all 15 games of the 2022-23 season. He initially served on special teams units where he notoriously blocked a punt against Kent State that led to a safety, before earning his way into the defensive rotation. Nolan Smith’s season-ending injury against Florida created a hole in which Walker was gladly willing to help fill.

The freshman phenom would go on to record his best stats in the most important of contests: three quarterback hurries in the College Football Playoff Semifinal against No. 4 Ohio State and four quarterback hurries in addition to a 10-yard tackle for loss in the National Championship against No. 2 TCU.

After only one year in the Bulldog football program, Walker was chosen as Georgia football’s representative for the Southeastern Conference Football Leadership Council. A single athlete from each team is chosen by the coaching staff to travel to the SEC office in Birmingham, Ala., and “serve as a conduit of communication to the conference office on issues related to student-athlete experience and student-athlete wellness,” as described by the SEC.

Walker took the opportunity to heed Coach Smart’s words even outside of Athens and connect with the student-athletes from other institutions. The men from the other side of the line of scrimmage sat face-to-face, talking “smack” but more importantly establishing an understanding of one another.

“We play against each other throughout the year, but we don’t know each other without our helmet,” Walker explained. “Just getting that time to get to know them on a personal level, it really hits different. To see them in their own program, being a successful aspect for their program, and looking back like I really know that guy.”

Relational leadership existed in Walker’s life long before Smart came onto the scene as it was modeled for young Walker everyday by his father Curtis. For the majority of Walker’s youth, the senior Walker was the head football coach at Catawba College in Salisbury.

“Seeing that role of my father being a head coach for many years … seeing him do his speeches and seeing him address players, just seeing that leadership role of him affecting the community and where we stayed, it just rubbed off on me and it’s just part of my personality,” Walker said.

Now halfway through his sophomore season with the Bulldogs, Walker continues to impact the defense even if his stats aren’t gaudy. Always an edge threat when on the field with a killer first step and the mobility, as well as maturity, to drop into coverage when needed. Beyond his onfield performance, Walker is consistently the first to celebrate the success of his teammates — running to his brothers to congratulate them because he knows what they play for.

“I want to know why the person next to me is practicing so hard. I want to know what I can do and what I can say to motivate them to do better,” Walker said. “You love to see the guy next to you have success.”

Though in different fashion than the past two championship seasons, success still permeates the Georgia football program. Recruiting, impressive facilities, a talented coaching staff and a culture of excellence can all be credited with the recent success Georgia has acquired, but connection cannot be ignored.

And for Jalon Walker, it is prioritized.