Georgia’s Travon Walker is ‘one of one’

Georgia football-Travon Walker-National Championship

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

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Bulldogs defensive lineman Travon Walker (44) might be the first player selected in the NFL draft, which begins Thursday. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

The meteoric rise of ex-Bulldogs defensive end to possible No. 1 pick of NFL draft

ATHENS — “I think he is going to have a big year for us.”

Boy, did that turn out to be a prophetic statement.

It was offered a little over a year ago toward the end of Georgia’s spring practice by coach Kirby Smart. He was referencing Travon Walker, then a rising junior defensive end who had never started a game to that point in his career with the Bulldogs.

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Fifty-six weeks later, Walker is favored to become the No. 1 player selected Thursday night in the first round of the NFL draft.

That doesn’t mean he will be, but in the final hours leading to Thursday’s nationally televised event, Walker’s name is being bandied about by draft experts as most likely to be called first. Regardless of opinions, Walker was carrying the best odds in Las Vegas sports books to go No. 1. He surpassed Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson with 6-5 odds as of Wednesday and was gaining favor by the passing hour.

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Walker was asked about his meteoric rise in a phone interview from Athens on Wednesday.

“I’m enjoying it, I guess, but I’ve got to stay grounded because I haven’t been drafted yet, so there’s no need to get excited now,” Walker told the AJC. “I’m just happy to have the opportunity to get drafted and be in the position that I’m in.”

Indeed, Walker’s name could not be found on any Top 100 draft lists last year. Even this year, the 6-foot-5, 275-pound athlete was not considered a consensus first-rounder exiting his junior season at Georgia. It wasn’t until running a blistering 4.51-second 40-yard dash and being measured with 36-inch arms at the NFL scouting combine that Walker’s name became associated with the first round. But then it was still in a “may have run his way into the first round” context.

Two months later, Walker lasting past the top-five selections seems unlikely.

“Even when he was playing for me, the potential to play on Sundays was obviously there,” said Justin Elder, Walker’s coach at Upson-Lee. “But to hear him talked about as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, that’s hard to believe. It makes you think about how few people in the world have had that opportunity. I’m just so proud of him for having patience and grinding and digging in.”

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To date, only four Georgia players have had that distinction: Frank Sinkwich (1943, Lions), Charley Trippi (1945, Cardinals), Harry Babcock (1953, 49ers) and Matthew Stafford (2009, Lions). If Walker becomes the fifth Bulldog to go No. 1, UGA will join Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Southern Cal for having the most players selected first in NFL history.

Count Vince Taylor among those convinced Walker should go No. 1. He has been telling NFL teams that since he signed Walker to his agency, Elite Loyalty Sports, several months ago.

“When I was building my practice, I had to pretty much be like a scout,” said Taylor, who is based in Irving, Texas. “When you’re competing with larger firms with more resources, you’re trying to find guys with good character who are transcendent athletes that other people may be overlooking. I saw that in Travon. When I met his parents, I told them, ‘Your son is one of one.’ There is nobody like him in college football.”

With the Jaguars set to pick first and having secured a quarterback last year in Trevor Lawrence, Taylor immediately thought No. 1 was a possibility. The debate between Walker being the best player available and somebody to protect Lawrence raged on within the Jacksonville organization.

Regardless, Georgia’s rich NFL draft history will be enhanced. It has had a No. 2 player in Johnny Rauch (1949) and a No. 3 in Garrison Hearst (1993). The most Bulldogs taken in a single first round was three in the 2018 draft when Roquan Smith (eighth), Isaiah Wynn (23rd) and Sony Michel (31st) were selected. The most players the school has had go in a single draft is nine in 2019.

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There’s a good chance Georgia will surpass all those numbers. Walker, Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean and Devonte Wyatt all received invitations from the NFL to attend the draft in Las Vegas in person. Davis and Dean are headed there. Wyatt initially accepted but changed his mind.

Walker declined. It’s not so much that he was concerned about being stuck in the green room as that he wanted to be surrounded by friends and family. Like, all of them.

While attendance would be limited in Vegas, Walker’s party has had to upgrade its arrangements at The Omni Hotel at the Battery Atlanta to be able to accommodate more than 70 guests. A subset of that group – including Walker’s parents, Stead and Lasonia Walker, his representatives and his high school coach – will be in a separate room to await the life-changing call.

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“It’s one of those things I just couldn’t pass up,” Elder said of attending. “I’ll never get a chance to do this again. Even if he doesn’t go first, it’s going to be a great night for him. You know it’s going to be exciting.”

Lawrence, last year’s No. 1 pick, signed a $36.8 million contract that included a $24.1 million signing bonus. But even the No. 10 pick last year, Alabama wideout DeVonta Smith, signed for $20.1 million, with $12 million guaranteed.

Walker insists he’s not worrying about all that.

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“I haven’t really thought about it,” Walker said. “You can’t spend money you don’t have.”

It’s not like he was a long shot to get here. Walker was a five-star prospect when he signed with Georgia in 2019 as the No. 2 defensive tackle in the nation. But stardom wasn’t instant with the Bulldogs.

First, he had to bide his time behind Malik Herring. Second, he was somewhat playing out of position in Georgia’s 3-4 base defense.

The Bulldogs had Walker beef up to 295 pounds to be able to play inside as a freshman. He gained notice for a game-clinching sack of Bo Nix at Auburn in 2019, but totaled just 28 tackles and 4.5 sacks his first two seasons.

But then Herring graduated, outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari entered the draft and Smart unveiled a new plan for Walker. The Bulldogs would keep opponents guessing by having Walker and Nolan Smith alternate roles as defensive ends and linebackers.

“Not only is he replacing Malik, but in a lot of ways, he is replacing Azeez,” Smart said. “I think everyone assumes with Azeez being gone that it is now Nolan’s job. But it is not like that for us. Sixty to 70% of the snaps, Travon is Azeez.”

Walker responded with 37 tackles, six sacks and a team-best 36 quarterback pressures. He recorded sacks against Michigan and Alabama in the College Football Playoff. But it was his TD-saving, 30-yard rundown of Crimson Tide receiver Agiye Hall downfield from the line of scrimmage in the championship that caught talent evaluators’ attention.

Ojulari, an early second-round pick last year by the New York Giants, had 49 tackles and eight sacks as a rookie last season. As the draft approaches, the competition to land Walker has intensified.

Suddenly, it very well could take the first pick to land him.

“He’s generational,” his agent said. “I told him, ‘Your goals should be set on becoming a Hall of Fame player.’”

For now, Walker will have to settle on “first-rounder,” and that’s pretty good.