Friday, December 13, 2002
Red rover, red rover, send Heupel over
By Marc Connolly
Chaos. Pandemonium. Mayhem. Those are just a few of the words that come to mind when thinking about what Josh Heupel and the startling efficiency of Oklahoma's spread offense does to opposing defenses.
Watch the tapes. Defenders scramble around like horrified pedestrians in the old King Kong flicks. Legions of corners and safeties get shuttled in to cover the 5-wide sets. Defensive coordinators use all-out, send-the-house schemes one series, then cover-two zones the next. Nothing has worked.
Fortunately for the famed Blackshirt D, secondary coach George Darlington believes he has a unique athlete on his side, playing a unique position who will present problems for Oklahoma's unique quarterback. His name is Joe Walker, Nebraska's senior rover and secret weapon, whose talents are tailor-made to play against an offense as wide-open as an Oklahoma prairie.
In other words, expect to see No. 25 all over the field, no matter what the situation is.
"There are times that Joe is going to blitz. There are times he'll be playing zone and a lot of the time he'll be locked up on one of their fine receivers," said Darlington, in his 28th season at NU. "He'll have to play with such technique since Heupel doesn't miss many people. If people have a step or two, the ball will be delivered."
Walker is looking forward to getting in Heupel's kitchen.
"He's a type of quarterback that is poised in the pocket and doesn't get scared of getting hit," Walker said. "He can release the ball so quickly, so you've got to blitz at full speed. Half-stepping won't get it done against a guy like Heupel."
Oklahoma's quarterback, the prototypical strong silent type, might be the best gunslinger in the nation at calling audibles, which has destroyed corner and safety blitzes on a regular basis.
"It puts tremendous pressure on our secondary," Darlington said. "Certainly the rover has got to be a run support guy on certain formations and like another corner on other formations."
That, in a corn husk, is exactly what the famed roverback position at Nebraska does. And only a special athlete can play there. Though Walker has excelled as a kickoff and punt return man since he came to Lincoln in 1997 and appeared in 34 games (eight starts) as a free safety, it wasn't until All-American Mike Brown moved on to the NFL (Chicago) that he got his shot.
And there's not a more important position in Nebraska's scheme.
"It's the quarterback of the defense," deadpanned Walker, who has two interceptions (one for a TD), seven pass deflections and 25 tackles this fall. "It's a guy who can carry the defense."
He says this because of the ball-hawking, free-wheeling role that you won't find in many defenses in the country. Some might think the rover position is really just a fast strong safety or a small linebacker, but Walker defines his residence in the middle of the Blackshirts as a privilege and an honor because only a select few players can handle its endless duties.
"Rover is half linebacker, half cornerback," says Walker. "Makes big hits, yet can cover like a corner and makes big interceptions. It's a part of our defense that allows an individual to follow the ball and move around more than anyone. I'm all over the place.
"I'm in the quarterback's face. I'm covering guys. Wherever the ball is, I'm there."
A lead-by example guy, rather than a rah-rah type, Walker's experience as a senior, age (23) and serene disposition has been essential this season playing on a defense that starts seven sophomores and juniors and several first-year starters. That, along with his standout play, has helped the NU defense hold opponents to 14.9 points per game (13th in the nation), continuing the school's nation-leading 13-game winning streak. Darlington has been impressed enough to put his name right next to some of the former Husker greats to line up at the rover spot, such as Mike Minter of the Carolina Panthers and Brown.
"Joe compares very favorable to a lot of the guys we've been blessed with having back there," says Darlington. "He reminds me somewhat of Kareem Moss, who was our rover when we won the national championship against Miami in '94. He is just a tremendous athlete. He's the picture of a perfect all-around athlete who can do a tremendous number of things in areas of skill."
That's what recruiters thought too when they watched an All-America quarterback at Lamar-Arlington (Texas) in 1995, when he was responsible for 42 TDs and more than 2,500 yards of total offense (1,300 rushing with 30 TDs, 1,200 passing with 12 TDs). Since his grades were not up to par as a senior in high school, he put his recruiters on hold for a semester. After what he calls a maturation process that included keeping his nose in a book for the fall of '96, most every football power in the country once again came calling.
But he repeated the same story to every fast-talking recruiter.
"I told the colleges that I really didn't want to play quarterback," says Walker, "I thought I was too short."
So the Huskers nabbed the 5-foot-10, 195-pounder as a safety instead, and welcomed him to campus in January of 1997. Yet, once Frank Solich took over for Tom Osborne a year later, the Nebraska coaching staff planned on making him a two-way starter.
"We had anticipated that his junior year he'd play both offense and defense for us. He would have been a wingback," says Darlington, before pointing out that Walker is one of the only players in college football history to ever return a kickoff, a punt, and an interception for a touchdown in the same year as he did in 1998. "He would have excelled there, too."
Two offseason surgeries on his left knee after the '98 campaign ultimately nixed that idea, which is fine by Walker. With the colossal matchup of the BCS's top two teams being played in front of a national audience down in Norman, the lightning bolt in Nebraska's secondary is looking forward to seizing the moment as one of the overly-crucial components of the entire contest.
"I love being in situations where I can make big plays," says Walker. "I thrive on them -- always have. That's what allows you to lift your game up to the highest level. You just get so excited.
"It's like a lion looking down on his plate."
Hopefully, for Husker Nation, Walker will fill-up on Sooner Pie and a bottomless dish of Heupel come Saturday.
Marc Connolly is a senior writer for ABC Sports Online.
|Oklahoma QB Josh Heupel will have to be wary of #25 on Saturday afternoon.|