Senior Leader Walker Poised for Big Season

There are only five fifth-year seniors on the Illinois football team this year. But each of them adds a level of maturity and experience that is vital to a team's success. One of those is Derek Walker, who's entering his fourth year as a starter at defensive end.

A product of Glenbard East high school, Derek is a quiet, thoughtful young man who is evolving into a leader.

"I'm trying to take on a leadership role. I'm not an overly talkative guy, but I'm getting there. People look up to the seniors. You've been here the longest, so you're more wise to things."

Illinois lost some outstanding leaders off last year's team, but new ones are rising to fill the void. Walker doesn't agree with those who assume Illinois is a one-hit wonder.

"I don't think we're going to fall. It happens every year. A new set of leaders comes in, and you've got to step up. Last year, we had a great set of leaders with J (Leman) and all, but we have a lot of guys who were with them for a long time and learned from them. I think with guys like Xavier (Fulton), Brit (Miller) and others, we'll just continue to train."

Part of senior leadership is setting team goals and establishing guidelines for behavior on and off the field.

"We had meetings this summer where we have goals we want to reach this season. We had a good season last year, we want to be good this year, so we don't want to do any off-the-field stupid stuff. We're not all angels, nobody is. But you've got to be smart. Our goal is putting what we are striving for this year above everything else."

Another aspect of leadership is teaching the young guys so they can replace those who are graduating. Walker is pleased with the depth at defensive end because it makes that continuity easier to accomplish.

"It helps that some of these young d-ends will have played, so they will kind of understand the thing. So when you leave, it's not like they have a whole new role."

Derek likes the depth for the competition as well.

"We just keep getting more athletic. I'm excited about having more depth at the position. I think it helps the team. It makes it more competitive as everyone is trying to get playing time."

Derek's statistics were better his sophomore year than junior year. He thinks he had a good year last season, but he's lost some weight to improve his chances of having a great year in 2008.

"I weigh 265. I was a lot heavier last year. I was about 275. I don't like playing up there. You lose your speed off the edge. I like a playing weight of 260-265."

Walker also understands the nuances of life cycles and opportunities. He is philosophical about statistical evaluations.

"Certain situations present themselves. We rotate so much that it's luck of the draw sometimes. Yes, my statistics were down, but I had a good season. That's the thing about playing d-line. You can get good rushes all the time, and your partner gets it all one time, and the other time you get there. The main thing is to keep playing, that's all I'm worried about."

Defensive line coach Tom Sims is taking advantage of the speed and experience he has available to him to test some of the defensive ends inside to quicken the pass rush.

"We have so many d-ends. We really want to emphasize pass rush, so we tried some things like an all end d-line. You know, on third down move some of us inside. I think it worked pretty well. It's different. You get guards and centers inside used to working on collision going against speed guys, and whoa. I think it will put stress on the offense."

Derek looks forward to the Missouri game, believing the Illini are better prepared than this time last year.

"Missouri is a really good team. Last year was good experience. I think the difference last year was that we really weren't sure how good we could be. I knew we would be better, at least we were gonna try to prove we were better, but this year we're more attuned to who we are as a team. So that experience makes us more prepared."

Walker is also excited with all the new construction being completed at Memorial Stadium, including finally getting to use the new weight room.

"That weight room was gonna be done for a long time now, but I'm excited about it. Revitalizing the stadium, revamping the team, trying to bring it up is kind of exciting. I look forward to going in there and seeing what it is like."

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