Richmond Times-Dispatch

Walker relishes UVA debut

After transferri­ng, former Hopewell star finally gets to play in front of family

- BY MIKE BARBER

CHARLOTTES­VILLE— There isn’t the same roar from the crowd these days at Scott Stadium. With attendance limited to just the families of players and staff, Virginia home games have taken on a quieter and more personal feel.

So this past Saturday, when running back Ronnie Walker got the first carry of his UVA career, it wasn’t hard to pick out his mother’s voice cheering from the stands.

“Just hearing her, it made me feel like I was in high school again,” the former Hopewell High School star said this week.

Walker transferre­d to Virginia from Indiana in the offseason. His family, he told the NCAA, was the reason why. His mother is raising his two younger brothers and was still making the more-than-eighthour drive to Bloomingto­n, Ind., for his games with the Hoosiers.

His grandmothe­r, a breast cancer survivor who battles breathing

issues and lupus, increasing­ly needed help at home. She also tries to attendWalk­er’s games, though that too is proving more and more difficult. Last season, when Indiana played at Penn State, she struggled so much with her breathing on the walk to the stadium that ushers escorted her to a seat on the PSU side, rather than having her go all the way to the visiting fans section.

His grandfathe­r died in a car accident whileWalke­r was at Indiana, and that’s really when the distance from his family hit home for Walker, who is nicknamed “Airplane” after his grandfathe­r and now wears his military dog tags around his neck.

A two-time all-state selection in high school, Walker helped Hopewell to a state title in 2017. But at Indiana, he never felt he fully got the chance to prove himself. He appeared in 22 games in two seasons, carrying the ball 59 times for 221 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

He was effective as a receiver out of the backfield as well, catching 12 passes for 112 yards and a score.

But with his family on his mind, Walker placed his name in the NCAA transfer portal in February, then committed to UVA. He seemed an obvious candidate to receive anNCAAwaiv­er to play immediatel­y, a case that was only strengthen­ed when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Instead, Walker’s initial request was denied and he found himself in the nebulous area of NCAA appeals.

“It was hard. I was just not understand­ing,” said his mother, LaKeesha Hayes-Winfield. “He had all the legitimate and honest reasons for transferri­ng. We gave them everything they asked for. And they’d come back and say, ‘We need this.’”

After leaving Indiana, Walker was able to spend more time with his grandmothe­r, helping her shop for groceries and do yard work at her Hopewell home.

Walker didn’t receive his waiver until Oct. 14. At that point, UVA had played three games.

But his waitwasn’t over yet.

Walker said his annual flu shot left him with symptoms and that contribute­d to him ending up in the team’s COVID-19 protocols. He missed another three weeks.

Saturday, during Virginia’s win over Louisville, Walker finally got to make his UVA debut. He took his first carry for 11 yards and a first down and finished with 22 yards on five attempts.

“It felt great,” said Walker. “It was a long process but we persevered and got through it.”

Now, Walker has a chance to be a big part of Virginia’s offense down the stretch. The Cavaliers (3-4) have won back-to-back games heading into Saturday’s home game against Abilene Christian (1-4). He joins a stable of running backs that includes junior Wayne Taulapapa and Towson transfer Shane Simpson, a group offensive coordinato­r Robert Anae said will benefit from Walker’s “fresh legs.”

“He’s got a really good skill set,” said Anae. “Run the ball, and when it’s time to block, block, and when it’s time to catch, get out there, throw your hands up and catch the ball. Ronnie can do all those things.”

Walker and the rest of Anae’s backs should find some room to run Saturday. FCS Abilene Christian allows 246.8 rushing yards per game and opponents are getting 5.2 yards per carry against the Wildcats. In their last game, against Angelo State, they gave up 404 rushing yards and four running touchdowns.

Earlier this season, they allowed 441 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground to Army.

It all points to Walker being able to give his mother more to cheer for on Saturday.

 ?? ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS ?? Running back RonnieWalk­er had 22 yards on five carries in his first game with Virginia in Saturday’s victory over Louisville. His first carrywent for 11 yards.
ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS Running back RonnieWalk­er had 22 yards on five carries in his first game with Virginia in Saturday’s victory over Louisville. His first carrywent for 11 yards.
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