Cavon Walker came to Maryland three years ago as a 218-pound linebacker. Now weighing in at 280 pounds, he’ll be starting at defensive tackle when the Terps take on Howard in their season opener.
Walker used to tease middle linebacker and high school teammate Jermaine Carter Jr. when they came to Maryland as freshmen, telling Carter he’d get too muscular to play the position at which he’d eventually excel in college.
“I used to say, ‘Yeah you’re getting big, you’re gonna be the one who’s playing d-line next,’ but it happened to me,” Walker told reporters Tuesday.
Walker was one of a few surprises on DJ Durkin’s first two-deep depth chart, released Monday night. Now a redshirt junior, he beat out Azubuike Ukandu and David Shaw, both of whom made starts last season, and is the team’s starting defensive tackle next to nose tackle Kingsley Opara.
Walker played defensive end in high school and was recruited to Maryland as a linebacker. After playing on special teams as a freshman, he suffered a season-ending foot injury two games into his 2014 campaign. When the team switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 after that season, Walker shifted back to defensive end. In 2015, he appeared in 10 games, recording seven tackles and one pass break-up.
It might have been a rough adjustment at first, but the position switch is finally paying dividends.
“It hurt my chances for a while, but as I got used to the weight things got better,” Walker said. “I’ve run well with the weight now, so it’s like I weigh 220 again, but I just look way bigger.”
Although many college players don’t end up playing the position at which they were recruited, the linebacker-to-defensive tackle move isn’t a particularly common one. Tackles have to approach plays differently because they’re on a different plane than linebackers are. They have less time to react because they’re right up against the offense.
“It’s much more technically defined when you play the defensive line,” Durkin said. “The littlest step, the littlest hand-placement or eyes in the wrong place can really get you in trouble, whereas the further you get from the ball, the more leeway you have. If you make the wrong step, you have time to make it up.”
Walker no longer has that leeway playing on the line, but his prior position does give help him a bit at his new one.
“When I played SAM I had to check the slot, so I had to jam a lot, so I’m good with my hands,” Walker said. “I don’t want to build myself up, but I’m a very strong guy. I’m good with my hands, and my speed, that’s a big thing I take from linebacker to the defensive line.
“With Cavon, one of the biggest things is his experience playing linebacker and knowing how to run to the ball and make a play,” Durkin said. “Defensive linemen don’t always quite have that mentality.”
When Walker and Jalen Brooks both came in as outside linebackers in Maryland’s 2013 recruiting class, both of them weighed about the same. That’s certainly changed.
“I’ve gained 30 pounds, which is a big thing, and he’s gained 70,” Brooks said. “He’s always been a killer in the weight room, and obviously him gaining that weight and being that big and having played linebacker when he was younger, he’s really athletic and probably moves better than a lot of defensive linemen out there.”
Brooks says that while Walker stands out for his anticipation of the quarterback’s release and ability to bat passes down at the line, it wasn’t until practices this August that Walker came into his own at the position.
“We knew he’d gotten big to like 260 — he’s always been a stocky guy — but then he gained another 20 pounds and we were like, ‘Okay are you gonna play offensive line?’” Brooks joked. “Who’s stopping this kid? He’s going to play d-line for sure.”