D-line’s Walker still has time to sal­vage rough rookie year

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Kos­mider

DeMar­cus Walker walked out of Mi­ami’s Hard Rock Sta­dium less than one year ear­lier in a tri­umphant mood.

The Bron­cos rookie fin­ished a dec­o­rated ca­reer at Florida State by help­ing the Semi­noles beat Michi­gan 33-32 in the Or­ange Bowl on Dec. 30, 2016. Walker had a sack — his 16th of the sea­son, a fit­ting fi­nal au­di­tion for the NFL draft.

Walker re­turned to that sta­dium Sun­day in a far dif­fer­ent space. His ster­ling ca­reer as a pass rusher for the Semi­noles led the Bron­cos to draft him in the sec­ond round, with the 51st over­all pick. But lit­tle has gone right in a rookie sea­son dur­ing which he was shifted from de­fen­sive end to out­side line­backer, be­came a weekly in­ac­tive upon the re­turn of Shane Ray and re­cently moved back to de­fen­sive end be­cause of injuries along the line.

His play­ing time has been sparse. He played Sun­day for the first time since Oct. 22, fin­ish­ing with one tackle in three de­fen­sive plays in Den­ver’s 35-9 loss to the Dol­phins. He has three tack­les this sea­son and hasn’t played more than 10 snaps in any game. It’s a sea­son that has tested Walker more than he imag­ined.

“I think there are a lot of things that he wasn’t ex­pect­ing com­ing to the NFL,” said de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Joe Woods. “Go­ing to Florida State and be­ing a mar- quee player there, when you come here, you’re back to ground zero. That was a lit­tle bit of a shock for him along with the speed of the game, the qual­ity of the play­ers that he was go­ing against and things that we were ask­ing him to do.”

With four games left as a rookie, Walker is ea­ger to prove he’s learned from the strug­gles he’s en­coun­tered since see­ing Den­ver snow for the first time in April. With end Derek Wolfe now on in­jured re­serve be­cause of a neck in­jury and the time­line for in­jured nose tackle Do­mata Peko’s re­turn un­cer­tain, Walker could have a larger role in the fi­nal four games.

“I was very happy to be back

out there and get the reps I had,” Walker, 23, said of play­ing against the Dol­phins. “I just have to keep mak­ing plays and get the coaches to trust me.”

Bron­cos coach Vance Joseph left lit­tle doubt as to why Walker was sent to the bench when Ray re­turned from off­sea­son wrist surgery Oct. 30. Fourth on the depth chart at out­side line­backer be­hind Von Miller, Shaquil Bar­rett and Ray, he had to play spe­cial teams. Walker hadn’t proved him­self up to the task, so the nod went to Kasim Ede­bali. But even when Ede­bali was cut by the Bron­cos last month, a move that seemed to open a door for Walker at out­side line­backer, the team in­stead pro­moted Deion­trez Mount from the prac­tice squad to play spe­cial teams.

“Un­til he learns how to play (spe­cial) teams,” Joseph said of Walker then, “he won’t progress as the fourth guy.”

But be­fore he could con­tinue his fight to be­come Den­ver’s fourth out­side line­backer, injuries ne­ces­si­tated a move to de­fen­sive end. It’s where Walker be­gan the off­sea­son be­fore be­ing shifted to the out­side. In a rookie sea­son full of ob­sta­cles, Walker said shift­ing be­tween po­si­tions is not one of them.

“To be honest, I’m a de­fen­sive line­man, but I can also play out­side line­backer,” he said. “I was drafted to do both. I like go­ing back and forth. I tell peo­ple that I’m both, an out­side line­backer and a de­fen­sive line­man, be­cause I can. I’ve been do­ing that since col­lege and high school, play­ing in­side and out. I’m a ver­sa­tile player, so I’m used to it.”

But one of the chal­lenges of mak­ing Walker a true “hy­brid-type of player,” as Woods called him Thurs­day, is iden­ti­fy­ing the right way to build his body. Walker said weigh­ing 270 to 275 pounds would be the ideal mark to al­low him to be a pass rusher who could also hold his own along the de­fen­sive front. He weighs about 255, and con­cedes that maintaining his weight has been a chal­lenge.

“You want to be lighter play­ing the out­side line­backer po­si­tion be­cause of the things we’re ask­ing you to do from a cov­er­age stand­point,” Woods said. “But in­side, you’ve got to be big enough to hold up. He’s more of a sit­u­a­tional pass rusher right now, and we’ll have to see how we can play him in terms of play­ing out­side line­backer — or is he just an in­te­rior line­man?”

Build­ing blue­prints for build­ing his body and iden­ti­fy­ing his true role for 2018 can wait a few weeks. For now, Walker is de­ter­mined to end a dis­ap­point­ing sea­son on a tri­umphant note.

“I want to seize an op­por­tu­nity,” he said. “I’m not go­ing to go out with­out a fight.”

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