It takes a certain type of football player to excel on special teams.
According to Georgia linebacker Ryne Rankin, teammate D’Andre Walker fits that rare mold.
“He just has that special teams ‘nut squad’ attitude. You've got to be one or have a bunch of them,” Rankin said. “You've got to fly down there and knock them out.”
Walker has made his presence known several times on special teams, which has been an inconsistent unit for the Bulldogs otherwise. Along with his performances following punts and kicks, the sophomore has made spot appearances at linebacker, giving glimpses of what could be in his future.
Walker came on the scene for the Bulldogs in a pivotal moment of the opening game against North Carolina. After Georgia pulled ahead 26-24 with five-and-a-half minutes left in the fourth quarter, Walker came crashing through the Tar Heels’ kickoff coverage. He barreled past a block in the back to run over two would-be blockers and wrap up returner T.J. Logan, trapping the Tar Heels in terrible field position.
Georgia fans took to social media shortly after the play, sharing clips and praise for the sophomore’s hustle. Walker said the play was partially a result of being in the right place at the right time but also spoke to his natural aggressiveness on the field.
“My whole life, my whole motto of playing football is, 'See ball, get ball,' Walker said. “When you see the ball, you go get the ball. That just comes in with the takeaways and whatnot. If you have more takeaways in the game, you're more than likely to win. I'm trying to get the ball.”
His tank impersonation against the Tar Heels provided a highlight for Walker, but he set up another big special teams play for a teammate four games later against South Carolina.
With under two minutes to go in a seven-point game, the Gamecocks attempted an onside kick toward Walker and several other Bulldogs. As the ball bounced into the air, Walker blocked two South Carolina players at once, giving wide receiver Terry Godwin the gap he needed for a 43-yard touchdown that secured the Georgia victory.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has been saying since the week after the North Carolina victory that he and the coaches needed to find Walker more playing time. That, however, has proven easier said than done.
The Bulldogs have been set at outside linebacker this season, with juniors Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter receiving most of the playing time. As those two produce to the tune of 6 ½ combined sacks, the coaches have picked their spots to get Walker in the mix.
There has been production from Walker in some of those moments, including a quarterback pressure against Ole Miss that led to an interception. The opportunities, however, have become fewer and fewer as the season has progressed, resulting in no tackles for Walker since that victory over South Carolina.
“He started out the season learning what to do and he picked that up and played really well a couple of games,” Smart said. “Then we’ve had a couple of games where he hasn’t played as much. We’ve played really physical teams, teams that come downhill at you. He’s a loose player, he runs very fast, a special teams player, a good pass rusher. Learning what to do is really important for him and being able to execute it.”
The limited role is a change of pace for Walker, who just two years ago ended his senior year at Langston Hughes High School with 102 tackles along with 23 ½ sacks.
“Like everybody tells you, that's high school,” Walker said. “It's a whole other level here. At the same time, I can just keep perfecting my craft every day at practice. With my teammates behind me, it's easy because they're waiting for those same numbers. They're pushing me as hard as they can.”
Walker said his biggest focus as he nears the close of his second season has been adding weight to his 6-foot-3 frame. As he bulks up and becomes more accustomed to the defensive playbook, his role with Smart’s defense will eventually increase, especially if either Bellamy and Carter jump to the NFL.
In the meantime, he’ll continue to trot out on special teams with the occasional cameo on defense, seeking another chance to hit someone and hit them hard.
“When I get in, I'm fired up just to be out there,” Walker said. “Now that's my role, and I take that very seriously. When I'm out there, I'm trying my best to help my team out.”