Bucs' Walker finally showing his upside

After earlier struggles, he's key part of Tampa's unheralded offensive line

Pro Football

January 25, 2003|By Alex Marvez | Alex Marvez,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAN DIEGO - Kenyatta Walker finally had reason to gloat.

As the media filed into Tampa Bay's locker room after the Buccaneers' 27-10 victory over Philadelphia, Walker was at the entrance reminding reporters how little respect the Buccaneers' offensive line had received entering the NFC championship game. Of course, the right tackle didn't need to issue a reminder after the blitz-happy Eagles were held without a sack as the Buccaneers reached Super Bowl XXXVII against the Oakland Raiders tomorrow at Qualcomm Stadium.

"People were saying we were below average," said Walker, whose unit had allowed five sacks against the Eagles in a 20-10 loss during the regular season. "We'd been pounded down the whole year. Not only did we do it against the Eagles, we did it in the worst environment. We couldn't hear the snap count or anything. But we went in and burnt down Veterans Stadium."

Fittingly, Walker's career is smoking after it appeared he was in danger of flaming out less than two seasons after being a first-round draft choice from the University of Florida.

Walker was expected to immediately fill the team's gaping hole at left tackle in 2001 even though he was a right tackle in college. Not only did he struggle making the switch, but it also reached the point where Walker was inactive for the 2002 season opener even after he was moved back to his former position.

"This game is very humbling," Walker said. "In my first year, I was humbled. I left school early and was on top of the world. I came out for a challenge, and I was definitely challenged."

The first challenge was trying to play an unfamiliar position. Walker compared the transition to a right-handed person being asked to write with his left hand "and trying to do it at the highest level possible." Walker started all 16 games as a rookie, but management decided in the offseason that he was better served returning to the other side.

"Kenyatta is the classic example of the junior coming out early and being thrust into an absolute no-win situation," said Buccaneers general manager Rich McKay, who selected Walker with the 14th overall selection. "It was our mistake, but really we weren't left with a lot of alternatives. When you do that to a kid, it's not fair. We bring him in and say, `You've been a right tackle. How about coming in and going to left tackle? We're a team that's supposed to go to the Super Bowl, so you'd better play really well.' "

Walker, whose study habits as a rookie were another concern, then failed to quickly grasp the offense installed during the 2002 offseason by new coach Jon Gruden. The Buccaneers were worried enough in the preseason to send a 2003 seventh-round pick to the Dolphins for journeyman Cornell Green, who started the season opener against New Orleans.

"Guys can get caught up in a drowning pool where everybody starts to label them," McKay said. "It can get in your mind and affect your play. It was a little concerning. If we were the old Bucs and Kenyatta were a central focus of why we were winning or losing, he might very well have drowned."

Instead, Walker began to swim when inserted into the starting lineup for Tampa Bay's second game against Baltimore. Ignoring what he calls the low point of his NFL career - taunts from Ravens fans that he was about to get traded to Washington because of his failings in Tampa Bay - Walker played well enough to keep his first-string spot even after missing two of the next three games because of an ankle injury.

"It's amazing," Walker said. "My world had come crumbling down. I guess if it can go down that low, it can raise just as high. It still hasn't hit me that I'm the starting right tackle in the Super Bowl."

Judging by his upside, this might not be Walker's last chance to play for a world championship. The 6-foot-5, 302-pound Walker doesn't turn 24 until Feb. 1 and is just beginning to learn the nuances of his position under the tutelage of respected offensive line coach Bill Muir and veteran backup Lomas Brown.

"What's scary is this is only our first year in this offense. When we go back in the offseason and training camp, I won't have to learn nothing new. I can just concentrate on getting better in other ways. It's a great feeling."

Alex Marvez is a reporter for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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