Walker, a Scout.com 4-star prospect, never saw a meaningful snap in two seasons under Brian Kelly. He caught but one pass for the man that recruited him to South Bend, Charlie Weis, (though he did earn significant playing time vs. USC in 2009).
His wait for playing time wasn't irregular -- after red-shirt freshman season, Walker saw his first action during mop-up duty in the season opener of his sophomore season. But thereafter, snaps were hard to come by. As in 0 in 2010 and some "thanks for your service" snaps in 2011 vs. Purdue and Air Force before mid-season.
For two Irish juniors, Cameron Roberson and Tate Nichols, that first snap still waits. Both received red-shirts as 2010 freshmen; both were injured for the 2011 season as true sophomores, Roberson's knee injury serious enough to cloud his 2012 playing future as well. (The Newbury Park, CA, product could see his first action in a home blowout this fall, but I can't find a home game that's likely to fall under that category.)
Nichols, conversely, will be a member of the two-deep at right tackle. He'll play, but it appears he lost the post-spring starting nod to classmate Christian Lombard as both vied to replaced 5th-year senior Taylor Dever. For him, Roberson, and many like him on the 2012 roster, Dever should be a source of inspiration.
After playing sparingly under Weis, Dever won the starting right tackle job as a senior for Kelly in 2010. He retained the role for 2011, played well, and is ready to compete for a spot on the Dallas Cowboys.
"To be honest, I red-shirted and almost got lost in the system if you will," said Dever of his first three seasons in South Bend. "Its always been a dream of mine as it is with everyone playing college football to make it to the NFL. But once I got to this position today, I'm very appreciative of the opportunities and I'm going to work as hard as I can."
For Roberson, Nichols, fellow junior Daniel Smith (to be previewed separately this week), and a host of others, playing time might not come early, but as Dever showed, persistence and toughness can pay dividends in the end.
No Longer Buried?Unlike juniors Roberson and Nichols, senior Tyler Stockton has played college football, and for his current head coach, to boot. A six-game stint as a backup in 2010 ended when Stockton's injured shoulder made it too hard to compete. Post-season surgery followed. 2011 was lost to injury and inactivity -- not his shoulder, his knee -- a sprained PCL kept him from competing in the spring, much to the chagrin of his head coach.
"Stockton has a bit of a PCL inflammation," Kelly noted at the time. "It shouldn't be something that holds him out very much longer because he's a D-lineman, he doesn't need (a functioning) PCL, really. He has inflammation and soreness (in the knee) so we're going to quiet him down until we get him back to 100 percent."
Stockton did not fight through the injury to compete in the spring. And from August through the Champs Sports Bowl game in late December, he never appeared to sniff the possibility of playing time. Out of shape and far from the equation, Stockton entered his final spring a full 17 pounds lighter, 285, than he was listed last August. (You can assume that was at least 30 pounds less then he was carrying last December in bowl practices….trust me.)
"Tyler is in much better shape than last season," said defensive line coach Mike Elston.
Elston prefers to enter a contest with seven viable defensive linemen: two left defensive ends, two right defensive ends, two nose guards, and a "swing" player (DE/NG). The 2012 Irish Roster will have eight defensive linemen plus likely freshman red-shirt Jarron Jones. Two of the other eight, early enrollee Sheldon Day and 2011 red-shirt Tony Springmann, have never played. Springmann had off-season back surgery and was nowhere near pads this spring.
A motivated Stockton can find playing time or carve a niche in what could be his final season, a rarity for a senior who's followed his career path.
5th Time's a Charm?Dan McCarthy probably isn't the explosive football player recruit-niks remember. A serious neck injury (high school), and subsequent hamstring and shoulder injuries (college) can rob an athlete of his burst, lateral quickness, and ability to withstand consistent punishment. Rust can't always be polished away, but for the 5th-year senior safety from Youngstown, OH, rust isn't a reason for resignation, either.
"I'm feeling great and a ready to go help out anyway I can; to get better every day," said McCarthy, one of seven scholarship safeties on the spring roster, and one of what should be a whopping 12 on the roster in August camp. Playing time will be hard to come by from scrimmage, but McCarthy is still a natural fit for the Irish special teams, specifically its "run teams" (coverage and return units).
The dream of competing in meaningful defensive snaps remains.
"It's important in our defense to know both safety roles. You never know where or when you'll be called upon, so know every position and be ready to go," said McCarthy.