Derek Walker has come a long way since he was a high school senior at Glenbard East. He was not highly recruited out of high school, but former Illini coach Ron Turner felt Derek could play Big Ten football. Walker not only plays, he stars. And the best thing of all is he still has two more years of eligibility.
Derek Walker is often the forgotten man in the defensive line because he doesn't draw attention to himself. But he earned Freshman All-America honors from the Sporting News in 2005 and was named the Illini's defensive lineman of the year in 2006 after leading the team with 5.5 sacks. His two year defensive statistics include 55 total tackles and 14 tackles for loss for 56 yards.
Derek continues to improve and has the confidence of knowing he will remain a starter in the defensive line. But even now there is more publicity for his backup Jerry Brown. While Brown and several other young defenders have exciting futures, they will have great difficulty beating out the consistent Mr. Walker.
Derek commented on Jerry Brown in a recent interview.
"He's a baller, you know. He's making plays. That's good for us. We can have two guys who make plays. I can make plays and he can make plays. There's no drop off between me and him in the game."
Derek Walker came to Illinois as a 6'-4", 245 pounder but has benefited from Illinois' Strength & Conditioning program.
"I now weigh 275. I've gained 30 pounds since my redshirt freshman year."
But despite the weight gain, Walker appears to have maintained his speed.
"You have to be able to run with the weight. Some people put on weight but then they can't run with it. The strength coaches have me on a program to eat right and continue to run while I build up weight so I can build up gradually and can run with the weight."
Regarding his understated persona on the field, Walker has an explanation.
"I'm not that vocal kind of guy who is screaming and prancing around. I just like to make plays. That's the name of the game. If you want to win games, you have to make plays."
The Illini defense showed major improvements last fall, and that growth appears to be continuing this spring.
"Yea, I think we are improving a lot from last season to now, but the job is not finished, obviously. Every day we have to be dominant, every day we have to be focused. If we do that, we will be closer to our goal. But I definitely see where we are getting better every day."
Derek Walker has witnessed frustrating times in the past. The defense was ranked among the worst in the country early in his career. How does he feel to be a part in aiding the growth of the defense?
"It's a good feeling. My redshirt freshman year I was just trying to learn my plays. It's definitely picked up since then. Guys get tired of getting pushed around. You've got to come with it every time you take the field."
The defense in general and Walker in particular appeared to dominate in a recent Wednesday scrimmage. But typical of Derek Walker, he humbly minimized his play.
"Yeah, we exerted a lot of energy. We just played hard. That's all we can do."
But the defensive linemen can become frustrated on pass rushes because the quarterbacks wear red shirts and cannot be tackled.
"It's so hard. You want to go full speed, and you just stop when you see them. We just have to keep the quarterbacks healthy. If it's Illinois, I hold up. Anybody else is fair game."
Even more frustrating is how the quarterbacks sometimes trash talk despite knowing they have an advantage.
"The quarterbacks say things like, 'you ain't getting me.'" Now come on man. They score a touchdown, but we can't hit them so they take advantage of it. It's a catch-22, you know. You've got to go hard at the quarterback, but in practice you have to be smart and not hurt our own people."
The frustration of a 2-10 season last year eats at him.
"I wish the season started this Saturday. You have a whole off-season to think about all the games we could have won. We were in it, you know. Those games just dwell on you the whole time. You just think about it. What if I did this, what can I do better? And you think about that every game, every play that went bad. It's hard to put into words. But I'm just waiting for that first game against Missouri, man."
The Speech Communications major has some plans for his two remaining years of Illini football, but he is reluctant to emphasize his personal goals.
"I'm just trying to get my degree and go to a bowl game. I have goals, but right now I'm just trying to practice hard and get better and win. I had some internships last summer in art. I've always had a passion for art. Hopefully I can try to do something with that. Of course, I'd like to play pro ball too."