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Is Von Walker the Most Interesting Man on Penn State Football’s Defense?

by on April 26, 2015 9:00 PM

Von Walker just might be the Most Interesting Man on the Penn State Defense.

So much so, in fact, that he seems to go by just one name: Vonwalker.

As in this from senior cornerback Trevor Williams:

“Vonwalker. Vonwalker,” Williams said after the Blue-White Game.

“You remember Michael Zordich? To me, I see similarities between those two. Vonwalker, coming in as a walk-on, has made tremendous strides. Very tough.”

And in this post-scrimmage bon mot from defensive coordinator Bob Shoop:

“…Vonwalker, who had an exceptional spring, by the way. Let me make sure that I provide that information. Vonwalker is arguably the most improved player on the defensive side of the ball.”

VONWALKER OF ALL TRADES

It’s been an interesting journey to becoming the subject of that inside scoop from Shoop.

In 23 games as a Nittany Lion, Vonwalker has played running back, linebacker, safety, kickoff returner and punt returner. He’s served on all four key special teams; had kickoff returns of 35, 26 and 23 yards; had a punt return for 22 yards; had a run from scrimmage of 10 yards; and has made 16 tackles.

You’ve quite possibly seen Vonwalker’s best tackle ever. It’s a crunching hit of Michigan’s Dennis Norfleet on a Penn State punt return in Beaver Stadium in 2013. It has been viewed on YouTube a total of 5,331 times and counting – if you click here and watch it for yourself. (Warning: There’s an R-rated soundtrack.)

“That’s my mentality,” he said last season, when reminded of that hit. Vonwalker had a big grin. “I love getting in there. It’s fun being up close to the action rather than back at the safety position. I do like to cover people, like on passes, getting back into coverage. But I also like getting in there and hitting someone. That’s the best part.”

Vonwalker ranks No. 4 in tackles among the Nittany Lions’ returning linebackers. He was such a hit in spring practice that he was co-captain of the White team for last weekend’s Blue-White Game.

At Central Mountain High School, Vonwalker was an all-state dual-threat quarterback and baseball outfielder. He lettered four years in basketball. He graduated with 14 school football records, over 3,600 yards rushing and 1,600 yards passing, with 179 tackles, nine sacks and three interceptions.

Vonwalker is from Mill Hall, which is 31.8 miles to Beaver Stadium. The trip he’s made there via I-99 is a boyhood wish come true, Vonwalker said last August, standing on the stadium’s green turf: “It’s been a dream of mine, playing here. When I get out here, I try not to show off. Just go after it all out. I’ve been thinking about it all these years. It’s finally happening.”

Vonwalker stands 5-foot, 11 inches tall. He came to Penn State as a walk-on at the behest of Bill O’Brien in August 2013, weighing 195 pounds. Last August he weighed 205. Now he weighs 213.

Vonwalker was Academic All-Big Ten last fall. A junior advertising major, his dream employer is more Nike than NFL. And for all you moms with college-age daughters out there: Vonwalker is genuinely nice, truly funny and unfailingly polite.

AN UNEASY TRANSITION

Vonwalker started his Nittany Lion career as a running back in 2013, shifted to safety, stayed there through the beginning of Shoop’s tenure, then moved to linebacker. He started at linebacker vs. Northwestern in 2014, when Nyeem Wartman was out with an injury, but he took his lumps last season.

“… A year ago, you’d say right and he would go left,” said Shoop, who orchestrated Vonwalker’s move to linebacker. It wasn’t an easy transition. “You’d say in, he’d go out. He was a Nervous Nellie and didn’t quite understand. Von has taken the next step, he’s grown up, he’s matured. All the things that probably made Von a great high school football player, we’re starting to see those qualities emerge right now. He’s very confident. When he comes off the field after making a mistake, he knows what he did.

“Last year, I’d say, ‘You know what happened there?’ ”

“He’d go, ‘No, I don’t know what happened.’ ”

Shoop happily concludes the story this way: “Watching him develop this spring has been one of the most exciting parts of the spring.”

Penn State second-year head coach James Franklin – who, actually, has one of those run-on names as well, as in Jamesfranklin – had already identified the two faces of Vonwalker early in his tenure.

“One of the things you have to watch with Von is he plays with so much passion and emotion that we need to make sure that he’s disciplined within that as well,” Franklin said last season. “But I love him. I wish we had 10 guys like him. I think his role on special teams and on defense is going to continue to grow for us. We want that guy on the field.”

FACING THE CHALLENGE

Last season, Vonwalker had a thick brown beard to rival James Harden’s, growing it through summer practice well into the start of classes and all the way until 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2014.

That’s when he took the trimmers and his razor to all that facial hair, cutting it away until all that remained was the fresh-faced kid from down the road who grew up idolizing the Nittany Lions. He was disheartened by an 18-13 loss at Michigan and that he failed to make a single tackle. So the first thing he did upon returning to campus in the wee hours of Sunday morning was to shave off his beard, thinking, “With this off, now I can have a fresh start.”

He was back to being Vonwalker, not trying to be a Walker, Texas Ranger. It was a seminal moment for him. He regained his focus, his purpose.

And by the time spring 2015 had come and gone, he had gained the trust of Shoop, the admiration of Williams and the faith of Franklin, who named him a team captain so 68,000 fans could see exactly how far Vonwalker has come. Interesting.

 

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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