Notre Dame great Darius Walker analyzes Josh Adams' stellar season up close

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Darius Walker can’t believe it.

Any of it. All of it. When the former Irish running back returned to South Bend last weekend, none of it looked the same. It was still Notre Dame, but not the same Notre Dame.

“These players are so spoiled now,” Walker said with a laugh. “The resources that they have — the (new) locker room, weight room, training table — all this stuff didn’t exist when I was there. I was blown away by what has happened to not only the football facilities but what has happened generally around campus.

“Everything has changed so much. I think it just goes to show you where college football is and how you really have to evolve from a recruiting standpoint.”

Without a doubt, Notre Dame is evolving.

In his three-year Irish career, from 2004 to 2006, Walker rushed for 3,249 yards, which ranks fourth in school history. He still holds the ND record for running back receptions in a season (56 in 2006).

And he did it all without any of this — the video board, the FieldTurf, the state-of-the-art locker room, the training table. No frills. Just empty calories.

“When I was at Notre Dame, we would go to the dining hall and you had to mandate your own diet, if you will,” Walker said. “It was up to you to make sure you were getting enough vegetables or hydrating enough or getting the proper nutrients. When you’re 18, 19, 20 years old at that time, I know I was not eating even remotely what I should have when I was going to the dining hall.

“That training table is really huge because you can ensure that guys are getting the proper nutrients, which definitely lends itself to conditioning and performance on the field.”

Even then, Walker’s performance didn’t suffer. After compiling 1,658 total yards and eight touchdowns as a junior in 2006, the 5-foot-10, 208-pound running back opted for the NFL, cutting his collegiate career short six credits shy of a diploma. After going undrafted, the Buford, Ga., native bounced around NFL franchises before officially retiring in 2011.

At the time, he’d been offered a two-year contract with the Cleveland Browns. But he wanted something new.

And instead of one job, he got two.

Today, Walker lives in Los Angeles, where he works as a private wealth advisor for Morgan Stanley. And throughout the fall, he doubles as a college football analyst for Eleven Sports, which broadcasts games for the Big Sky Conference.

He spends the week at a desk in L.A., and the weekends in a booth in Flagstaff, Ariz., or Cheney, Wash., or Missoula, Mont., or Cedar City, Utah.

Or, for one weekend only, in the (slightly wider) bleachers in South Bend.

“At the beginning of the season, when Eleven Sports hired me, I told them I needed one weekend off for the season, and it was my birthday weekend and the USC-Notre Dame game,” Walker said. “So they were kind enough to give me this last weekend off.”

Walker is glad they did. On Saturday, back in South Bend for the first time in three years, the retired running back celebrated his 32nd birthday.

He couldn’t believe that, either.

“I was on campus and someone said to me, ‘Darius, I remember watching you play 10 years ago,’” Walker said, “and my initial response was, ‘You’re out of your mind. There’s no way it was 10 years ago that I was on this field.’”

Years pass, teammates lose touch, buildings get built and torn down, stadiums get expanded.

But some things never change.

“I couldn’t go by tailgates or walk around the stadium without someone wanting to stop and say hi or take photos,” Walker said. “It’s amazing that people never forget. They really never forget. You’re in people’s minds and hearts for a long time, and I’m definitely appreciative of that.”

Walker was also appreciative of the gift his alma mater delivered at 7:30 p.m.

“Knowing I never beat USC when I was at Notre Dame, I couldn’t have been more proud and happy to not only be a former football player but just an alum of the school, leaving that game,” Walker said.

Before he left, in the waning moments of an emphatic 49-14 Irish victory, Walker experienced a new feeling towards his traditionally hated rival.

Not anger. Not frustration. Not a deep, guttural loathing that simmers just beneath the surface. Not love. Never love.

Pity, believe it or not.

“I found myself — and this is probably going to sound crazy — actually having some pity on USC,” Walker said. “It started to get to the point where I felt sorry for them, because it was like, man, as a fan I wanted to see a little bit more competitive of a game. Naturally I wanted Notre Dame to come out on top, but I wanted to see a blow-for-blow at least a little bit where it seemed like the two teams were equally yoked.

“But this was complete domination and I really started to feel a little bad for USC.”

***

Speaking of domination …

Who better to provide perspective on what Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams is accomplishing than Walker?

“I think what separates him from other backs that I see across the country is the acceleration through the hole,” said Walker, who watched in person as Adams rushed for 191 yards and three touchdowns in the victory over USC. “A lot of people talk about guys having vision and being able to cut and having that balance. It’s obvious to see that Josh has that.

“But what’s different is how fast Josh can explode through a hole. That’s what you don’t see across the country when you’re looking at other players. You don’t see that explosion that he has."

The talent is there … but so is the opportunity.

“If you remember when I was at Notre Dame, especially my second and third year under Charlie Weis, we were a passing team,” Walker said. “Brady Quinn was throwing for however many yards a game and setting all kinds of records as a quarterback, so we were a throwing team. I was lucky enough to get myself involved in the passing game as a running back in addition to my duties carrying the rock.

“So I’m certainly envious of how many touches Josh gets a game as well. They’re certainly featuring him, which is awesome.”

The numbers bear that out. In Walker's two seasons under Weis, 2005 and 2006, Notre Dame averaged 35.1 carries per game. The 2017 Irish are averaging 45 carries per game this season.

Through seven games, Adams — a 6-2, 225-pound junior — ranks fourth nationally in yards per carry (9.2), sixth in rushing yards per game (138.1) and seventh in rushing yards (967).

Adams owns seven rushes of 50 or more yards this season. Only three entire teams, including his own, can say that.

When this season ends, whenever it ends, Adams will have to make a decision.

Walker knows all about that.

“He’s got to figure out what exactly he’s looking to get out of his collegiate experience,” Walker said. “I was going to get my degree no matter what. Since I was only six credits shy after my junior season, I knew that if I left I could still come back and it wouldn’t take me much to get my degree (in marketing), which I ended up doing a year later.

“I had actually accomplished a lot of the stuff that I wanted to accomplish while I was a player at Notre Dame. I wanted to be known as one of the career leaders (in rushing). I had accomplished that after my junior year. I wanted to set records. I did that as a freshman. I also did that in receptions as a running back as well. So I had accomplished a lot of the stuff that was sort of on my bucket list at Notre Dame after my junior season.

“If he looks at what he really wants and thinks about it, he can decide for himself at the end of his junior season if he accomplished those things. If he did, the decision is probably going to be easy for him to say, ‘All right, I should try to take my talents to the next level.’ But if he still thinks there’s something undone or some box that he hasn’t checked after his junior season, he should definitely come back to finish.”

But first, Adams has to finish strong. With five regular season games remaining, the Warrington, Pa., native owns 2,735 career rushing yards, which sits sixth on the all-time list — 514 yards behind Walker. He’s on pace to top Vagas Ferguson’s single-season rushing record (1,437, 1979) by more than 350 yards. If the season ended today, he’d also claim the school record for yards per carry in a season (8.1, George Gipp, 1920) by more than a full yard.

Adams already holds the record for freshman rushing yards in a season (835), having supplanted Walker’s 786 yards in 2004.

That likely won’t be the last time Adams leap-frogs Walker in the Irish record books.

Walker can believe it. He expects it.

In fact, he welcomes the company.

“I want to challenge him,” Walker said. “He can definitely distinguish himself as statistically one of the best running backs to ever come across the University of Notre Dame. I certainly challenge him to overtake whatever numbers I had, because I think he has those talents and they have the pieces around him that should allow him to do that.

“There’s really no reason why he shouldn’t be one of the top rushers in Notre Dame history when he’s done.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Former Notre Dame running back Darius Walker returned to campus to watch the 49-14 Irish victory over USC last weekend (SBT File Photo).