Bulldogs expect breakout year from defensive end Travon Walker

Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker (44) during the Bulldogs’ practice session in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)
Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker (44) during the Bulldogs’ practice session in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Credit: Tony Walsh

Credit: Tony Walsh

ATHENS – Justin Elder thinks he knows the exact moment that Travon Walker became a 5-star recruiting prospect. The Upson-Lee High football coach had recently moved Walker from a down-lineman position to linebacker and wasn’t totally sure how it’d go.

It went pretty well.

“The ball was thrown behind him and he one-hands it with his left hand and, boom, he’s hauling butt down the field” said Elder, speaking of a late fall game against West Laurens in 2018. “It was unbelievable; one of the best plays I’ve seen in 20 years of coaching. It was a big play for us and I just remember thinking that night, ‘dang, this kid is going to play on Sundays.’ ”

Elder didn’t mention two other plays Walker made that night. Also playing tight end for the Knights, he caught a pair of touchdown passes in a dramatic, come-from-behind victory. The 6-foot-5, 285-pound defensive lineman was already a big-time recruit, but things seemed to ramp up to another level after that, especially once Walker was bestowed that coveted fifth star.

Fast forward to 2021 and Walker is still making big plays. The majority of them, though, are occurring on Georgia’s Woodruff Practice Fields. While Walker certainly has had has share of memorable moments on fall Saturdays – that fourth-quarter sack against Auburn in 2019 springs to mind – he hasn’t exactly developed into a household name with the Bulldogs.

Not yet, anyway.

Georgia is expecting big things from Walker this season. A rising junior, Walker is set to start at defensive end -- at least. The Bulldogs are also trying to come up with other ways to utilize Walker in the defensive scheme this year.

“Travon, I think he is going to have a big year for us,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said the second week of spring camp. “Not only is he replacing Malik (Herring) but, in a lot of ways, he is replacing (outside linebacker) Azeez (Ojulari).”

The interesting aspect of Smart’s comments about Walker is they came in answer to a question about outside linebacker Nolan Smith stepping up in the wake of Ojulari turning pro as an underclassman.

“I think everyone assumes with Azeez being gone that it is now Nolan’s job,” Smart said. “But it is not like that for us. Sixty to 70 percent of the snaps Travon is Azeez. And then Nolan is Azeez. It’s just one is left and one is right. Both of those guys play defensive end a lot.”

That makes perfect sense to Elder, who basically moved Walker around a lot on defense, too. In high school, Elder could pretty much put him anywhere and he’d dominate. He’s still not sure Georgia shouldn’t give Walker a shot at tight end, though the Bulldogs appear well-stocked there.

But Smart’s comments mesh with what Elder has been hearing about Walker’s development at UGA.

“It sounds like they’re putting some eggs in the basket with him and that’s good to hear,” Elder said. “I saw the other day they had him at 6-5, 285 and they had him running 18-19 miles per hour on GPS. He can move in space; he’s got ball skills. His wing span’s so big he can reach around a tree. I think he’s going to be able to handle it.”

Georgia’s offensive linemen agree. Starting guard Justin Shaffer referenced that wingspan when asked about Walker after UGA’s seventh spring practice on Tuesday.

“We go against each other almost every day,” said Shaffer, a fifth-year senior and three-year starter for the Bulldogs. “It’s hard because his arms are so long and he’s so explosive off the ball.”

“Our whole defensive line is real good, so it’s a battle every day,” junior tackle Warren McClendon said.

Indeed, Walker is just one in an assortment of talented linemen of all sorts of shapes and sizes manning the defensive front this year. And the mixing and matching therein has sometimes made it difficult for any one of them to stand out.

But Georgia’s specialized rotation up front is also what has made its defense exceptionally good. It takes some getting used to compared to the do-everything mentality these elite prospects played with in high school.

As for that 5-star distinction and living up to it, pretty much all of Georgia’s defensive linemen come in with similar profiles. And those distinctions don’t matter. Fellow 5-star Jalen Carter, once an inside player, has now moved outside to end and is sharing time there with Walker. Former 3-star prospect Jordan Davis is the biggest star among the down linemen.

Walker said living up to other’s expectations at this point is barely a dot in his rear-view mirror.

“Me, personally, I always set big goals for myself,” Walker said. “There are things I want to do for myself, not for anybody else.”

And Walker’s going to get them. So says his high school coach who still breaks down Walker’s game tapes to see how he’s doing and what Georgia’s doing with him.

“He’s grounded,” Elder said. “He’s got a solid mom and dad that have always kept him grounded and he’s always had a good work ethic and is very coachable. Those expectations he went up there with can be hard to live up to. They’re playing at a whole different level against a bunch of good players. So, I still expect him to be great, as long as he can stay healthy.”

So far, so good.

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