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WKU FOOTBALL

CRACKING THE SHELL: Walker confident, comfortable after successful transition back to RB

The question came like clockwork – “Who’s that dude?”

“That’s Gaej,” Frank LaRosa would reply. “That’s the one I’m trying to tell you about.”

He wasn’t the player college coaches were coming to East Bay High School in Gibsonton, Fla., to watch. They were there for KJ Sails, the four-star recruit that racked up nearly 40 scholarship offers and who is now a starting cornerback at South Florida.

But Gaej Walker was the one that unexpectedly turned heads, and the one who LaRosa, East Bay’s head coach since 2011, was trying to get college coaches on.

As Walker’s recruitment grew, so did his confidence. Feature stories started being written about him, and he was emerging as one of the best football players – both at running back and defensive back – in the Tampa area.

As that confidence grew and became more obvious, his shell began to crack. The quiet, reserved Gaej Walker went away and the real Gaej Walker appeared, showing the true personality those close to Walker love.

Now, Western Kentucky’s football team is seeing the same thing happen as he enters his fifth season on The Hill.

Walker worked defensively his first three seasons at WKU, before making the move back to running back for the 2019 season due of a lack of depth at the position. In what was originally planned to be a running-back-by-committee style of offense, Walker quickly became the go-to option, finishing the year as one of the best backs in Conference USA.

Entering his final season at WKU, and with a year under his belt collegiately at the position, the confidence and comfort is there, and it has the Hilltoppers excited about what’s to come this fall.

“I’m saying this to be funny a little bit, but when I recruited him, the year I was here with him and then when I got back, I couldn’t get him to say a word. The kid doesn’t talk. Man, he goes out and has one good year and I can’t get him to shut up,” WKU offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis said. “The confidence in his whole body, his whole body language and who he’s become is completely changed. He’s comfortable out there, he’s talking to the guys, he’s helping the younger ones and he’s like another coach out there right now.

“It’s really cool to see those guys come out of their shell. It took him four years, but he’s finally like, ‘Man, I can do this, and I can do this at a high level. I’m pretty dang good.’ ”

•••

LaRosa heard the rumors about Walker around the hallways of East Bay. He had transferred midway through his sophomore year, and the students were telling the coach about how good of an athlete he was.

Walker’s mother, a teacher, had reached out to LaRosa to let him know that her son had enrolled in the school, and the two met in the school’s gym. LaRosa said Walker was “real quiet” and “very reserved.”

“He’s been great since I met him, just awesome,” LaRosa said. “ Just a great personality once you get that shell cracked open.”

Walker was East Bay’s starting back as a junior in the team’s wing-T offense, and LaRosa was expecting big things from Walker as a senior after a strong junior campaign.

“It was usually just little sweeps or options, and now I’m running inside zone powers, in the gun, all type of run plays,” Walker said. “It’s different now.”

Ellis, who played for his father, Ricky Ellis, at Tiftarea Academy before transferring to the larger Peach County High school for his final season, knew what the offense entailed.

“I played for my dad, and my dad was a high school coach for 37 years and my dad’s a really big wing-T guy, so I’ve known the wing-T my whole life and, to play running back in that offense, you’ve got to be smart and you’ve got be tough,” Ellis said. “You’re talking about, if you play 70 snaps in a high school game, you’re running the ball 65 times. There’s a lot that goes into it.”

While his role in the offense was expected, his role in the defense was not. East Bay lost a starting defensive back two weeks into the 2015 fall camp to a broken ankle. LaRosa knew he had Sails locking up one side of the field, but he needed to slow the other with a tough schedule looming.

“Gaej was like, ‘Coach, I’ve got this,’ ” LaRosa recalled. “You hate to play kids both ways, especially in Florida, but I think that is just a nod to how competitive he is and how unselfish. He played both ways all year and he was shutting down some of these five stars and some guys that are playing in the league right now.”

Walker rushed for over 500 yards and had six touchdowns that season offensively, and defensively had 18 tackles and four interceptions. Scout.com, 247Sports and Rivals ranked him a two-star prospect, and the Tampa Tribune named him All-Western Conference Second Team.

Some offers started coming Walker’s way, and LaRosa says he was “very genuine” about all of them, not turning his nose up to schools of any size. He just wanted a scholarship and an opportunity, and he didn’t care what position he played.

For Ellis, WKU’s running backs coach at the time who was leading Walker’s recruitment, it was a similar sentiment.

“Whether he ended up being a DB or a running back, I didn’t really care,” Ellis said. “I just wanted him on the team.”

Walker held offers from WKU, Bethune-Cookman, Eastern Kentucky, Georgia Southern, Middle Tennessee and North Dakota State, according to 247Sports. Ellis said he was lightly recruited, but that he knew he was going to be a good football player. Ellis wasn’t fighting a ton of schools for him, and said the biggest fight was making sure his mom was comfortable with him moving to Bowling Green.

According to LaRosa, it wasn’t much of a fight.

“She said that she just absolutely loved it, just had a great feel for the place – and she’s got some football savviness to her growing up around football players – and I remember her telling me like, ‘Coach, I just really feel like it’s a fit and I think Gaej does, too. I hope that’s what he decides. I’m obviously not going to push him, but I just hope that’s the decision that he makes,’ “ LaRosa said.

Walker committed shortly after a visit in December 2015, and signed in February.

By then, the shell had been cracked at East Bay. He had taken on a leadership role, helped the younger players and made his mark in the program.

“I remember when he graduated, two of my guys wanted to wear his No. 4 – because he wore No. 4 for us – two of them wanted to wear it so bad that they were in a bidding war to put money on the table to wear that number,” LaRosa said. “That just kind of tells you a little bit about his legacy and just the way he was and the way he treated them. I think once he gets comfortable, it turns to that.”

•••

Walker had the option of where he wanted to play at WKU, he says, and he chose defense because of a running back room stacked with the likes of Leon Allen, D’Andre Ferby and Anthony “Ace” Wells, so he thought he’d see the field faster if he played on that side of the ball.

“I never thought I’d go back to running back,” Walker said. “But here I am.”

He redshirted in 2016 and didn’t see any action in 2017, but played in all 12 games in 2018 at nickelback with nine tackles. His career highlight leading into 2019 was a 20-yard pick-six in the second quarter of the Nov. 17 blowout of UTEP.

Walker started the conversion to running back the following spring, and was expected to be part of a four-man rotation with Joshua Samuel, Jakairi Moses and Keshawn McClendon heading into the season opener against Central Arkansas.

LaRosa said Walker was confident and excited in phone conversations about the opportunity to carry the ball again. Walker wanted the responsibility and workload on his shoulders, and LaRosa boosted his confidence.

“When he told me it was going to be a running back by committee, I would tell him, ‘It better not be. If you do this right, it shouldn’t be,’ “ LaRosa said. “I put that pressure right back on him. I was like, ‘I know what you’re capable of, you’ve just got to go show that every single day.’ And that’s just how it turned out.”

Walker took his first carry for a 68-yard touchdown run – the longest for WKU since Nicholas Norris had an 85-yarder against Houston Baptist in 2016 – and Helton decided to stick with the hot hand throughout the night. Walker finished with 153 yards on 19 carries – an average of 8 yards per carry – and added a 10-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

The Hilltoppers lost the debut to the FCS opponent, but Walker cemented his place in the offense.

He posted another 100-yard performance the following week, but WKU’s ground game struggled to get going the next two weeks. He had 41 yards rushing in a loss to Louisville and 19 in a win over UAB.

He posted back-to-back 100-yard performances against Old Dominion and Army, and his knowledge of the offense was growing as the Hilltoppers started picking up wins.

“I think naturally, as you get to go out and play games and continue to master anything, you get better and better at what you’re doing, and after game four and five, I think he started to realize what his role was going to be and how big that role was, and it started to really come together and he got more comfortable and started to understand why we’re blocking certain ways,” Ellis said.

“I think early on he was just running runs, and wherever the coach told him to go, he ran, whereas later on in the year he was understanding blocking schemes and why certain blocking schemes change versus certain fronts, and I think he was able to get better and better just as he kept getting to go out there and play more and more.”

One of Walker’s best performances came in the Oct. 26 loss to Marshall. He had 102 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, and head coach Tyson Helton said after the game he thought it was “the first one where he saw everything.” He had scoring runs of 16 and 33 yards, and also had a 21-yard run that set up a Cory Munson field goal.

“After about midseason, it started to slow down a little bit and I started to see stuff different,” Walker said. “At first it was kind of fast – everything was just fast.”

The success continued throughout the remainder of the season as WKU won eight of its final 10 games, finishing with a 9-4 record and a SERVPRO First Responder Bowl victory over Western Michigan. Walker finished with 241 carries and 1,208 yards – both marks that ranked second in Conference USA. He had eight touchdowns, seven 100-yard performances and was named second team all-conference.

Walker went from being part of a rotation of runners before the season opener, to accounting for 92% of the carries and 93% of the yards by the team’s running backs. Helton and Ellis both say they’ve never been around a running back who’s done that before – Ellis jokes that Walker’s mom is the only one that could call and say her son was playing too much – and while admitting it “was not ideal,” Ellis thought Walker’s days playing for LaRosa helped prepare him for that.

“I think he was used to it. I think playing both ways and then doing all the stuff he had to do in high school, it wasn’t really a big deal to him,” Ellis said. “ ... I think his upbringing and his background and just the personal toughness of the kid allowed him to be able to do that last year, which allowed us to have some success.”

•••

Now he won’t shut up, Ellis jokes.

After a strong return to the position, expectations are high for Walker heading into 2020. He was named preseason third-team all-conference by Phil Steele Publications, second team by Athlon Sports and as a candidate for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation’s top running back.

Ellis has seen the shell cracked like LaRosa did, but Walker says he’s not overly confident – “in the same spot as last year, basically,” he says – but he’s more comfortable.

“My second year in the offense, I understand it more. The whole blocking aspect of it, rushing, what holes I should hit, when to jump cut, being more patient with runs,” Walker said. “I’m just more comfortable.”

The staff is hopeful the running backs room will be deeper this fall. Moses is back after a season-ending injury in the opener last year, joining fellow redshirt juniors C.J. Jones and McClendon on the roster. Malik Staples, a redshirt senior, is now playing running back after making a move similar to Walker’s by going back to his high school position after playing linebacker collegiately at Louisville and WKU.

“I’d like to take a little bit off of him. I’ll still let him kind of be the guy, but I do want to take some off of him,” Helton said. “I think it’ll be good for Gaej. It’ll keep him fresher.”

WKU also has freshmen Noah Whittington and Malachi Corley, who Ellis believes have the chance to be future stars in C-USA. Ellis says he’s seen Walker take those two under his wing with a running-back-U mentality.

“I think he believes in himself now. He’s gone out there and done it. When he looks at himself, he’s like, ‘Man, I’m pretty good and I can get better and better,’ and I think that’s really important,” Ellis said. “It’s a lot easier to be a leader when you’re a guy that’s gone out there and had success before. It’s been really cool to see.”

Ellis said the 6-foot, 195-pound Walker is a willing blocker, but he wants to see him improve in the passing game. Walker caught 24 passes for 140 yards, including a 20-yard reception that set up Munson’s game-winning kick in WKU’s bowl victory.

There’s belief in the program that WKU’s offense, while maybe not what it was in 2014, ‘15 and ‘16, can put up number resembling those it had in the past. Walker says lots of points should be expected every game, but his goals are simple.

“I just really want to win. I don’t have specific set goals,” he said. “I just want to win.”

The expectations are high heading into the fall, and after a breakout season last year, Walker’s shell has been cracked and the confidence is shining through at WKU like it was at East Bay.

LaRosa saw it when he was in high school, and knew the ability was there. That’s why he was trying to get college coaches to recruit Walker, why he was boosting his confidence as he made the transition back to running back and why he believes the future is bright for his former player.

“I like to think I’m not going to put a ceiling on it or a cap on it. Shoot, if he’s a first-round draft pick, No. 1 overall, I’d be like, ‘Hey, that’s awesome.’ If he’s a seventh rounder or undrafted, ‘Awesome.’ If he walks away with a college degree and had a great experience, ‘Awesome,’ “ LaRosa said. “I know what a talented football player he is, and I know that he matches it as a human being because that’s exactly the way he always was.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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