Why PSU OT Rasheed Walker is ready to start
Last February, Rasheed Walker — then a blue-chip recruit — pored over Penn State’s depth chart with assistant Matt Limegrover before choosing between the Nittany Lions and Ohio State.
Walker, a coveted four-star lineman in the 2018 class, saw veteran tackle Ryan Bates atop the three-deep and senior Chasz Wright in the mix. He saw a pair of possible mentors — but more importantly, he saw snaps in the near future.
“That’s one of the reasons why I came here,” Walker said Wednesday at a media day reserved for last season’s freshmen. “This was an opportunity to get on the field. (Limegrover) wasn’t lying.”
No, he wasn’t. Bates bolted early for the NFL, and Wright ran out of eligibility after the 2018 season, leaving a starting spot vacant on the left side of Penn State’s offensive line. But it wasn’t open long. Three months after Bates’ NFL announcement, Walker, a redshirt freshman, claimed the No. 1 job at left tackle. And he has no intention of giving it up — in 2019 or beyond.
“Not many people get the opportunity to start as a redshirt freshman,” Walker added, cracking smile on the Lasch practice fields. “It’s an opportunity to get better and then make it to where I want to be, which is the NFL, as soon as possible.”
That journey to the league starts this fall, when Walker will be a bit of an outlier for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State has had redshirt freshman starters on the offensive line in James Franklin’s tenure. Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon started as second-year players in 2014, Bates became a No. 1 option in 2016, and Will Fries — the Nittany Lions’ 2019 first-team right tackle — cracked the starting lineup in 2017. But none of them possessed Walker’s pedigree.
Walker, who held 27 scholarship offers, had the recruiting rankings to back up the interest. The 6-foot-6, 314-pound edge blocker was given a 247 Sports Composite prospect score of .9676 — the second-highest OL score of the Franklin era, behind only Michal Menet (.9818). Walker’s score was also good for No. 65 in the country and No. 6 among tackles last cycle.
Still, Walker might have been overshadowed by fellow prospects in Penn State’s 2018 recruiting class. Micah Parsons, the No. 5 prospect in the class, dominated headlines, while Nittany Lion fans dreamed of an offense that featured Justin Shorter (No. 1 receiver) and Ricky Slade (No. 1 running back).
But Walker’s teammates believe the lineman will command attention come the fall.
“Rasheed is athletic as anything, probably as much as me and Micah,” said redshirt freshman pass-rusher Jayson Oweh, who ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash in the winter. “I mean, he’s big — but he can move. If you think you can beat him on the rush, no. He’s going to be right there. He’s physical. He tries to end D-ends, D-tackles. He finishes his job, and he’s really smart. I look to him to have a crazy year.”
Added Parsons: “His growth since last year has been amazing.”
Walker would agree, too.
The Maryland native said that when he arrived on campus last year, he was just trying to get acclimated to the college routine. And, well, a new position. Walker played right tackle his entire high school career at North Point. That changed the first day of 2018 fall camp, when Limegrover posted a depth chart that featured Walker as the No. 3 left tackle.
He’s since worked his way up the ladder. By midseason, Walker was the No. 2 option on the left side. Once Bates left, the starting spot looked to be his or JUCO signee Anthony Whigan’s to secure. And in the media’s first spring camp availability, the redshirt freshman — not Whigan — was seen running with the first-team at left tackle.
Now, Walker’s transition wasn’t seamless. The highly-touted tackle thought he grew going up against Oweh last fall. But facing Yetur Gross-Matos — a possible 2020 first-round pick — in spring camp? That was a different challenge.
It was clear on March 18, just a few days into camp. Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer posted a video to Twitter, breaking down spring film of Gross-Matos using violent hands to knock a blocker off-balance and burst into the backfield. Unfortunately for Walker, he was the guy on the receiving end of No. 99’s move.
When asked about the video getting out there, Walker shrugged and said, “Iron sharpens iron. When that happens, all you do is learn from it.” And he believes he has.
“When you’re going up against people like that, you have to be on your p’s and q’s at all times,” Walker said. “This spring, initially, it was really fast. But I noticed as spring ball progressed, the more reps I took against (Gross-Matos), it slowed down for me. I got the gist of things. Yetur got me better and helped me progress.”
Which ought to serve him well in Big Ten play. Gross-Matos won’t be the only All-American candidate Walker goes up against in 2019. The first-year starter will face Iowa’s AJ Epenesa on Oct. 12 before lining up across from Ohio State’s Chase Young in late November. According to Bleacher Report analyst Matt Miller, Epenesa and Young are projected top-10 picks in the 2020 NFL draft.
That’s a tall task, one Walker feels he’ll be prepared for. In his mind, he has to be, really. That is, if he wants to develop into an NFL tackle.
“I have to establish myself and be a leader. But there’s no pressure on me because it’s nothing I wasn’t expecting,” Walker added. “I’m ready for it.”