Backing It Up

Jaylen Walton can hardly believe he's heading into year three of his college experience. That includes football, of course.

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The Ole Miss junior running back from Ridgeway High School in Memphis, Tenn., is now one of the team's leaders, one of the veterans of two seasons of success under head coach Hugh Freeze and staff.

Walton, going through spring drills with his teammates and headed for Grove Bowl the first Saturday in April, said he loves the fact that he's stepping up in every area for this program.

"I'm definitely trying to become a leader," said the 5-foot-8, 166-pounder. "We've got to have good leadership in order to win. I'm trying to bring a lot of momentum to my team and just make sure we're all headed into the right direction."

Walton likes the fact that he's now in a role where younger players look to him. He wants to be a go-to guy in that regard as well as in the actual games.

"If they don't understand a play or a formation, I'll help them out," he said of his young teammates or any of his teammates, actually.

"We're always trying to make the team better. Just being accountable for each other. Just make sure to come out here everyday and work hard. Then everything will pay off for us."

The Rebels had just gotten into spring practice when spring break arrived. They'd had a couple of practices and had put on the pads Friday, March 7, for the first time. Now there's been a week off and it's back to the grind in the weeks ahead.

"With the pads on your mindset changes. Things are a lot faster, a lot more physical," said Walton, the Rebels' second-leading rusher in 2013 behind I'Tavius Mathers. "You've got to be certain places at a certain time. It's pretty much intense when the pads come on. It's also a great feeling."

Walton said the message is clear from the coaches. Owning the football is a huge key to whatever success the Rebels will have, just like any season.

"At practice every day, they preach ball security," he said. "You know you have to take care of the football. If we take care of the football, we'll be able to win."

Walton is not only a running back, he's also a kickoff returner. He rushed for 523 yards and scored six touchdowns in last year's 8-5 season. On special teams he had 25 kickoff returns and averaged nearly 21 yards per kick.

Walton said whatever is needed for his team, he believes he can do.

"Just get me the football in open space, handoffs out of the backfield, passes out of the backfield, and the return game," he said. "I'm just here to make my team better."

Ole Miss running backs coach Derrick Nix said Walton is working to become a complete player.

Jaylen Walton
Bruce Newman

"Jaylen's a kid with a tremendous work ethic. I think he's trying to take his game up another notch, just trying to hone in on all the little things from ball security to pass assignments to running precise routes," Nix said. "Being more of a productive receiver out of the backfield, I think he's just trying to step his game up to an All-SEC level."

Nix also said he likes the fact that Walton is becoming even more of a leader. He has encouraged that.

"I challenge him to be a leader. He doesn't have to be a rah-rah guy, just lead by example. You don't have to be a senior to go out and lead this ballclub. Just do the little things the right way. I think he's trying to get that done."

Obviously Walton is not a big back. His size has been somewhat in question when it comes to durability at the college level. He believes he has been able to put that to rest.

"I think I have," Walton said of answering his critics. "There's a lot of little backs. They have given me motivation and made headlines while they've made their teams better. So I look up to them and I feel like I can do the same."

Walton isn't worried about whether or not he will become the top back, the feature back, for the Rebels. He knows there are several others in the mix, both returning and newcomers.

"I just feel I'm competing to make my team better," he said. "It's not just necessarily the No. 1 job. It's whatever my team needs from me, I'm just trying to bring momentum to the team. Just make sure everybody is going in the right direction."

A couple of newcomers have caught his attention. Eugene Brazley and Jordan Wilkins are both having an impact this spring.

"They have come along real well," Walton said. "They're just trying to learn the system. Their athletic abilities are good. Both are great running backs that run hard and protect the ball. They'll be fine."

So, most likely, will the versatile Jaylen Walton, who is primed to become an even bigger part of the program, as a seasoned veteran and leader on and off the field.

"It's gone by fast. This will be my third year," he said. "I can still remember that freshman year, just trying to earn a spot, just trying to make plays with the ball in my hands. Now it's my junior year and it's gotten here fast. I'm just trying to make every day count."

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