As Von Walker sat along the sideline at Beaver Stadium hours before the Blue-White game, a feeling of surreality crept into his mind as he greeted Penn State football fans.
He recognized a lot of the faces, people who had watched him play at Central Mountain High School, and now were asking for his autograph on Penn State memorabilia.
Although in just his second college semester, Walker’s grown comfortable in this new environment.
“Growing up, it’s always been Penn State,” Walker said. “It’s like I’m not home, but I am home at the same time. So it’s a really good fit for me, I think.”
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As a kid who grew up a little over 35 minutes away in Lock Haven, Walker envisioned this as a youngster. Now, he’s one of a handful of young players who could be counted on even more this season as Penn State looks for ways to augment its lineup in any way possible following NCAA sanctions that have left them short on scholarship players.
Last season, Walker was an immediate fit for Bill O’Brien’s special teams. Walker spent his true freshman season blocking on punt and kickoff returns, and did so for most of the latter portions of the season with a shoulder injury.
He caught the occasional kick and finished the season with four punt returns for 19 yards and six kickoff returns for 99 yards. He also notched 2 1/2 tackles.
Also a reserve running back, Walker carried the ball seven times for 18 yards in mop-up duties against Eastern Michigan and Kent State.
Now, the former walk-on has switched roles. After practicing with the running backs last season, Walker found himself among Penn State’s linebacker corps — and sometimes the defensive backs — when spring practice began.
“After the coaches talked they just thought it was a good decision for me,” Walker said. “I think they like my aggressiveness. I like to hit. I think it was a good move for me along with the coaches and I think we made the right decision.”
And if any player can be moved from position to position without much of a hitch, it’s Walker. Just look at his high school resume.
He holds 14 Central Mountain football records. Among them — points scored in a single game (32), points scored in a season (118) and all of the school’s rushing and touchdowns scored marks.
But Walker wasn’t only a vaunted runner. Often, he would use his battering running style to soften defenses up and draw them to the line of scrimmage and the Wildcats would opt for their aerial attack, also powered by Walker. As the team’s quarterback, Walker completed 54 percent of his passes and tossed 10 touchdowns with 15 interceptions.
On defense, Walker accounted for 179 tackles, nine sacks and three interceptions during his career. One of his school records is for punting — he averaged 38.5 yards per punt his junior season.
“With high school, it’s a lot different than college but I do think my experience in high school, quarterback, running back, linebacker, punter — everything pretty much — I learned the different aspects of the game,” Walker said. “Coming here, it’s a little bit different. I have to focus on one position now. I got moved a couple of times but I’m focused at linebacker right now trying to be the best player I can be. Teammates have been doing a great job helping me, so I’m just focusing on one thing.”
A member of the 2012 recruiting class, Derek Dowrey earned a scholarship as a defensive tackle out of John Handley High in Virginia. After redshirting as a true freshman, Dowrey played in eight games last season, notably in a five-man defensive front against Michigan where the Penn State defense held Michigan to 149 rushing yards.
Dowrey switched to offense along with Brian Gaia this spring to augment the unit’s depth. He’s packed on 20 pounds to facilitate his switch and to be able to withstand the constant pounding an offensive lineman must endure.
“I think this spring was great for a few of us; me and Brian had just come over from the defense,” Dowrey said. “We’re learning offense, learning this offense specifically. I think we did a lot. I think some guys stepped up and we’ve created more depth where there wasn’t before because guys have gotten better and played better.”
Like Walker, Dowrey spent time on both sides of the ball in high school. While the experience playing along both lines has helped ease his switch, Dowrey is still adjusting to the minute aspects of playing offensive line at this level.
“I feel like you can never get enough reps,” Dowrey said. “They’re similar positions, body types, the same area of the field.
“But other than that the positions are very different. Even down to the stances, your steps, everything’s different. It was a bit of a transition but I think Coach (Herb) Hand helped me out a lot in making that a smooth transition.”
That transition will continue for them in the summer and into the fall.