Before last season’s Belk Bowl, Ricky Walker was preparing for Virginia Tech’s final practice before the game. Walker was on the exercise bike, trying to get loose before practice.
Then, Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente came up beside him and tapped him on the shoulder.
“He said, ‘In less than 24 hours, this is going to be your defense. Your defensive line.’ So I took that personal,” Walker said.
Walker, now a redshirt-junior, would become the elder statesman of the group right after the game. Virginia Tech started three seniors on the defensive line last season, all of whom would be gone. Walker hadn’t thought about it like that before Fuente approached him.
Fast forward to now, and Walker is one of the most noticeable and increasingly vocal leaders on the team.
Walker hasn’t put up crazy stats so far in three games, but he’s still making an impact. Walker has recorded seven tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries.
“Ricky is starting to pick up a little bit more as a vocal leader, besides being the guy that is just a buzzsaw,” Foster said. “I’ll tell you, he’s playing at an elite level right now for us, up front. How he’s playing is how he’s practicing, and that’s really what I was kind of aluding to earlier, is we need to get our whole team, and we practice hard, but I still think our guys can reach another level. We’re going to need to do that to achieve what we want to achieve, and that’s where I want to challenge our guys. But Ricky and Andrew (Motuapuaka) both are great examples of that.”
Motuapuaka has been a leader for the Hokies for a couple of seasons now, but really took ownership of the team in the offseason with Walker.
“I mean I’ve always looked at Ricky Walker as kind of one of the guys who, those hard-nosed guys that works hard every day, since he got here,” Motuapuaka said. “Throughout this offseason, he took a big step in being a big-time leader.”
Motuapuaka said during winter workouts, when the Hokies held their Hard Hat competition, Walker was one of the leaders until he dealt with an injury that prevented him from doing certain lifts.
“As far as that, he was the leading guy for pretty much the whole offseason,” Motuapuaka said.
Once spring practice arrived, Walker really came into his own.
“I think it started a little more when spring ball came around,” Walker said. “In practice, me not talking more, just them seeing me do it on the field producing and going hard, and definitely in the summer. The bigs lift in one group, and I was trying to lead them guys and the defensive line. I told them the first day, ‘We’re not missing any reps. If we miss reps, everybody runs together. Our defensive line runs together. Don’t be surprised if I call you at two in the morning to go run hills.’”
Walker actually did call other players in the middle of the night to run and work out, continuing an unofficial tradition that the Hokies have participated in for several years.
“I know in the past, we used to do stuff like that all the time,” Motuapuaka said. “Trey Edmunds, JC (Coleman), we used to do that, (Donovan) Riley. We used to go to that hill over by the track, before it was tore up. Now, we’ve got to find a new hill.”
While Walker has grown into his leadership role, he’s used his predecessors as models. He has taken different things from James Gayle, who helped recruit Walker, Luther Maddy and “the guy”, Woody Baron.
“Just how he came to practice every day and his work ethic, and how he led us,” Walker said of Baron. “I’m just trying to take on those roles and add a little few of my tweaks. So far, the coaches are proud of me and I’m living up to that role.”
Part of living up to the role is pushing the culture and message from the coaches. This week, that’s keeping focused on Old Dominion. Tech’s primetime matchup vs. Clemson is less than two weeks away, but Tech is trying to focus solely on the Monarchs. The motto of the week? “Tunnel vision.”
“That’s the theme of the week,” Walker said. “Like Coach (Fuente) said in our Sunday meeting, he told us that everybody is going to try to distract us with other things, but we’ve got to focus on the opposition this week, and that’s ODU. We’ve got to just keep tunnel vision and block everything else out.”
For guys like Walker and Motuapuaka, concentrating on Old Dominion isn’t hard. Both hail from the 757 area of Virginia and know multiple people who either play for Old Dominion or go there as a regular student. Old Dominion recruited both Walker and Motupuaka, before they decided to go to Virginia Tech.
“Personally, these guys are back home for me, and I’m ready for them, and I know they’re going to bring their best ball, the best ballgame,” Walker said. “I feel like everybody has a good head on their shoulders and like Coach (Fuente) said, we’re going to put the blinders on the horse, just stay straight and worry about the Monarchs.”