COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It’s been more than three years since Cavon Walker and his fellow class of 2014 Friendship Collegiate Academy (Washington, D.C.) alums played a high school down, but the group still talks about their Knights’ days on a regular basis. They exchange laughs about their youthful antics at the D.C. charter school, recall their joint en-masse commitment to Maryland in the summer of 2012, and discuss how far they’ve come as football players and people since then.
In fact, Walker, linebacker Jermaine Carter, lineman Richard Merritt and lineman Quarvez Boulware, who all starred at FCA at one time, just congregated last weekend to watch one of their former teammates now in the NFL: Yannick Ngaokue.
“We always reminisce. We love our alma mater, and now with [former FCA head coach Aazaar-Abdul] Rahim here we always talk about how Friendship was,” Walker said. “We talked about Yannick the other day; he actually started for the Jaguars. We actually got together and watched the game and were real excited about that.
“You can’t live too much in the past, though. You have to keep getting better and moving forward.”
Wise words from the redshirt junior, who has indeed heeded his own advice. The 6-foot-2, 280-pounder has been in College Park for three years and appeared in 25 games, though he’s yet to register a single start (a season-ending injury after two games his sophomore year stunted his development). But after a standout fall camp this summer, Walker ascended quickly and finally earned a spot atop the initial depth chart. To boot, he did it at a position he’s never played before, Walker transitioning from strong-side linebacker to defensive tackle in head coach D.J. Durkin’s 3-3-5 scheme.
“Cavon is a guy we’re counting on to play big time for us. He’s had a really good camp, and all those experiences as a [linebacker] can only help you,” Durkin said. “With Cavon, with his experience playing linebacker, he’s been in position to run to the ball and make tackles, whereas some guys have only played defensive line and that’s not quite their mentality. That’s something we talk a bunch about. I think there’s carryover that way from his position [linebacker].”
Walker concurred with his coach, noting the actual transition wasn’t nearly as difficult as the pounds he had to pack on. The D.C. native reminded how he played defensive end for three years in high school, and was slotted as a 5-technique during his freshman year at Maryland as well. Thus, he knew the basics of defensive line play already.
“But the biggest thing is I came in [to UMD] 218 pounds, and now I’m 280,” said Walker, who credited strength coach Rick Court for helping him improve his bench and squat numbers by more than 50 pounds each. “You know it’s always funny. Jermaine [Carter] and I are best friends and I’d always joke with him like, ‘Man you’re getting big, you’re the one who’s going to be playing D-line.’ And then it happened to me. But gaining all the weight, it hurt my progress for a little while. But I run better with the weight now. So now it’s like I’m 220 again, but I just look way bigger (laughs).”
Walker did acknowledge there was a bit of a learning curve after spending the last two years at linebacker. Moreover, he admitted the defensive tackle spot is “a little different” than when he lined up at end.
“When you’re at the line of scrimmage, lined up right over a guy, it’s a different set of skills it takes,” Durkin explained. “You’re window of vision [is more narrow] and it needs to be that way; it’s much more technical and defined when you’re playing defensive line. The littlest hand placement [error] or the littlest eyes being in the wrong place can really get you in trouble. The further you get from the ball, you get more leeway. If you take a wrong step, you have time and distance in your favor.”
Maybe so, but Walker’s confident he has what it takes to hang up front. He said with the help of Durkin’s defensive expertise and under assistant Mike London’s tutelage, he’s ready to contribute in a major way.
“I feel like my speed will help me elevate my game to another level. And when I played SAM I had to check the slot, so I jammed a lot. I was always good with my hands. So now when I punch, I mean, I’m a very strong guy. That [my strength] and my speed, that’s another thing I brought with me from linebacker to D-tackle,” Walker said. “So I gained weight, kept my speed up and I got stronger. Those are the main things I’m bringing with me to the defensive line.”
That’s all well and good, but physical traits alone didn’t win him the No. 1 gig. There was a fierce camp battle this summer, with incumbents David Shaw and Azubuike Ukandu both doing their part to lay claim to the starting role. Ultimately, though, Walker edged out the other two and should be on the field when the season opens Sept. 3 against Howard.
“I feel like I know the defense very well and all the plays for D-linemen. And also my work shows for itself. I put in a lot of work in the offseason. Even when we were practicing I’d go in by myself and do extra work. I’d invite my teammates along and we’d work together,” Walker said. “The [camp competition] between us was very intense, but it helped us grow as people though. I’ve come to call those guys my brothers. We push each other, no matter who is out there. We work together as a unit, and our unit is one of the most important ones on the team. I feel like there’s no rivalry; it’s about building each other up.”
That’s the mentality the defense, and really the team as a whole, has developed. Walker said the coaches have instilled an attitude where each individual is imperative to Maryland’s success, regardless of where they sit in the pecking order. On top of that, the defensive staff in particular has its players fired up about the unit’s potential should they each buy in 100 percent.
“Our defense, I feel like it’s going to be amazing this year, because everybody is all-in,” Walker said. “I’m very excited to play in this type of defense. There’s going to be so much movement and it’s going to be hard for the offense to see what we’re going to do. We can bring anyone from anywhere.
“And I feel like our coaches focus on every situation. To win a game, the turnover battle is big and stopping teams in the redzone is big. So if you stop those things, I feel like you can win the game. And if [the coaches] preach it, we’re going to do it.”
For now, though, Walker knows he and his teammates need to back up their words on game day. The former FCA standout realizes how easily tides can turn and tunes can change after a couple subpar practices or Saturday afternoons.
“You’ve got to keep working and keep pushing,” Walker said. “You’ve got to keep your mind right. You can’t get complacent. One day you can be the [starter], one day you can be a ‘two,’ one day you can be a ‘three’ -- you have to keep working.”