Anthony Walker Q&A: 'Why not start 0-2 and win the Big Ten?'
Northwestern is one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten, winners of three in a row and in the chase for the West Division title.
The offense has garnered most of the headlines during NU’s surge from an 0-2 start that left many scratching their heads. But the Wildcat defense also is playing well. And a big reason for that is linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., who has helped Northwestern reach 4-3 overall and 3-1 Big Ten as it looks to make a run at the West Division crown.
The 6-1, 245-pound junior from Miami enjoyed a breakout season in 2015, earning consensus All-Big Ten honors for a 10-win squad. Walker was fourth in the nation with 20.5 tackles for loss last year, a mark that was third most in NU single-season history. Walker led the ‘Cats in tackles (122) and notched 19 tackles in victory at Duke and added 1.5 TFLs. This season, Walker has 51 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
I caught up with the star linebacker as he prepped to take on No. 6 Ohio State, a program that NU hasn’t beaten since 2004 and hasn’t toppled in Columbus since 1971. The Buckeyes (6-1, 3-1) also will be angry coming off a 24-21 loss at Penn State, OSU’s first defeat of the season.
Q: How do you think the defense is playing as you head to Ohio State this weekend?
A: I think we’re getting better each week. We took a positive step last week (in a 24-14 win vs. Indiana). We played a pretty complete game on defense. We were able to stop the run a little bit and get after the quarterback. I think we are starting to click and have to take it on the road this week.
Q: You got off to a slow start but have picked up steam of late. Are you happy with how you are playing?
A: I want to get better each week. And I think I have done that. Of course you want all of the (big) stats and all of that, but you just have to be patient and keep playing hard. You don’t want to try to do too much out on the field. Just play hard and let the action come to you. I have made the plays I have wanted to make. I just wait my turn and watch my teammates make plays. As long as we are getting wins, I am fine with my numbers. We all know the system and all can make plays on this defense. We are getting better each week. That’s all I can ask for and all that I want.
Q: What are you trying to improve at this year?
A: I want to improve on all aspects of my game. Stopping the run, stopping the pass, coming off blitzes, getting off blocks. You never can get comfortable with your game. You always have to work. I try to keep working each day. You can’t take anything for granted.
Q: Did the team ever panic or worry when you started 0-2?
A: No. We didn’t. We have good leadership in the locker room. We have good players, and we keep focused. We all thought: Why not start 0-2 and win the Big Ten? I don’t think there ever has been a team start 0-2 and win the Big Ten. Why not be the first? That’s our goal. We were never in doubt that we were going to be able to compete in the Big Ten. We have gotten better each week. Now we are finally clicking on all cylinders.
Q: Do you think the turning point was the 38-31 win at Iowa?
A: I think that helped a lot. Iowa was enemy territory. We had a good week of practice and always believed. The game started out well. We hit a rough patch right before the first half ended but we came out in the second half rolling and made some plays to take control. And the next week against Michigan State was another big win (54-40) for us on the road. Right now, we are taking on that road warrior mentality (as we head to Ohio State).
Q: Did you know Northwestern hasn’t won at Ohio State since 1971?
A: I knew it was in the 1970s. Yep, 1971. I saw that somewhere. It has been a while. It would be good to get a win there. They are talented and play well. J.T. Barrett is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. He brings a different aspect to the game. Their running backs, No. 4 (Curtis Samuel) and No. 25 (Mike Weber), are good athletes and can run the ball. They have receivers who can make plays. And the offensive line is good, too. We have a big challenge in front of us.