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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 10 CFP National Championship Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We begin our annual assessment of Georgia Bulldogs likely to hear their names called in this weekend’s NFL Draft with the player both likely to be taken highest and about whom opinions are the most divergent.

If I had to use only one word to describe my reaction to Travon Walker’s meteoric rise up draft boards, to the point at which he’s a real contender to be the top overall pick, it would be “bemused.”

Let’s be clear, Bulldog fans have known for years that Walker was perhaps the most athletically-gifted player on the UGA roster from the day he stepped on campus. We’re talking after all about a guy who was running down on the the kickoff team as a true freshman at 290 pounds. In high school at Thomaston’s Upson-Lee he ran the court as a forward on the school’s undefeated state championship basketball team, more than once threading his way to the hoop for an explosive dunk.

This of course was before his NFL Combine performance which was among the most eye-popping at the event, well, ever. At 6’5 and 272 chiseled pounds Walker ran a blistering 4.51 forty yard dash. To put that in perspective, Walker was faster than any tight end, faster than any quarterback other than Desmond Ridder, and faster than every offensive lineman. By a full 0.37 seconds. Add in an explosive 35.5 inch vertical jump, and you can see why NFL personnel types nearly dropped their clipboards.

But again, this is nothing new to Georgia Bulldog fans. Travon Walker is the kind of versatile big athlete that the folks who stock NFL rosters have been conditioned to go ga-ga over. They worship at the alter of the Trinity, by which I obviously mean the ratio of size, speed, and strength. They dream of Walker lining up as an EDGE rusher in their 4-3. They smile at the notion of him setting the edge in run defense in their 3-4. They go giddy remembering him rushing the passer from the nose in nickel and dime formations on third down. And they become just a little self-conscious at the thought that someone might see the facial expression they make when they think of him dropping gamely back into coverage as he sometimes did for Dan Lanning’s Bulldog unit, notably when he tipped a ball against Florida that was then intercepted by Nolan Smith.

Because Travon Walker can do all of those things. But can he do all of them consistently? Can he do them against NFL talent?

That really is the question. On paper Walker is a no brainer top five pick. As long as the paper in question isn’t the stat sheet from his time in Athens. Because if there’s one knock on Walker that’s made the rounds as he’s ascended draft boards it is this: how could a guy who’s clearly that much better physically than his competition not be more dominant?

Walker finished 10th on the Bulldog defense in total tackles in 2021 with 37. That was only five more than Jordan Davis, landlocked in the middle of the unit with teams actively running away from him on nearly every snap. His 7.5 tackles for loss were tied with Robert Beal and Channing Tindall for 4th on the team. And 2021 was, statistically speaking and in all other respects, Walker’s most productive year in the Classic City by a wide margin. He racked up only 13 tackles total in 2020 and 15 in 2019.

I am loath to criticize a man both big enough to rip me in half and fast enough to run me down across the Six Flags Over Georgia parking lot in order to do so. But someone who doesn’t share my trepidation might conclude that Walker is the guy you want to step off the team bus first but not the guy you build a professional football defense around.

But that’s probably a bit facile. The Bulldog defense isn’t built for strongside edge defenders to rack up tackles. Walker’s job against the run was often to take up the blockers required to allow Nakobe Dean, Channing Tindall, and Quay Walker to run wild. And he was pretty effective in that role. He also led the team with an impressive 36 QB hurries. Getting home to the passer is important from a defensive doctrine standpoint, and you’ll never convince me otherwise. But Travon Walker really is a player whose impact is belied by a cursory glance at the stats page. There’s a reason he played more snaps per game than any other Red and Black defensive lineman. Good things often happened when Walker was in the game, even if his role in facilitating them was a supporting one.

It’s also worth noting that Walker was perhaps most effective statistically when it mattered most, especially as a pass rusher. Of his six total sacks on the season four came against Clemson, Auburn, Michigan, and Alabama in the title game.

And it bears noting that a team who drafts Walker isn’t drafting him as a polished finished product. The NFL Draft is in the end still about potential. And if Walker irons out some of the inconsistencies in his game there’s no question he could be a stalwart on an NFL defense. To my mind, those inconsistencies are as follows: a quick first step but occasional issues anticipating the snap and hand usage against good, long-armed offensive tackles. These are things that can be improved. I expect the front office of one of the teams picking in the top five has convinced itself that its coaches can do that, and will make Walker a very wealthy young man (it’s worth noting he’s only 21, younger than many of the players in this draft) on Thursday. Until later . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!!!