How the COVID-19 pandemic brought Walter Nolen, the nation's No. 1 2022 recruit, back to Memphis

Khari Thompson
Memphis Commercial Appeal

A year ago, Walter Nolen III was entering his sophomore year at Olive Branch unranked by recruiting services. The 6-foot-4, 300 pound defensive lineman had a breakout season for the Conquistadors. He totaled 92 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks

Now, the five-star junior is a consensus five-star prospect and the No. 1 overall player in the Class of 2022 according to the 247Sports Composite. He has offers from Alabama, LSU, Tennessee and Florida State among others. 

"It happened overnight. I guess a lot of folks didn’t know who he was and they got to watching his film and it just happened overnight," his dad Walter Nolen Jr. said. 

Capitalizing on his new rankings, Nolen III transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. But by June, he came back home and transferred to St. Benedict.

So how did a player that Barton Simmons of 247Sports describes in his scouting report as "one of the most disruptive defenders in the 2022 cycle" and "poised to end up as an early-round NFL draft pick" end up at a school that finished 3-7 and winless in region play last year? 

It was his mom's desire to have him at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, his dad's desire to have him groomed by someone who played the game at a high-level, and his own trust in St. Benedict coach Marlon Walls. 

'If you bring his stuff ... he can stay'

When the first phone call from IMG Academy came in early January, Walter Nolen Jr. thought that it was one of his buddies playing a practical joke on him.

"I talked to that guy for like an hour and I was so excited that I texted Walter while he was in school," Nolen Jr. said. "I said man I’m going to go check you out of school, because I got something you ain’t gonna believe." 

St. Benedict's Walter Nolen (9) tackles Briarcrest quarterback Michael Dallas (9) causing a fumble and change of possesion Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, during a game at Briarcrest Christian School in Eads.

The recruiter wanted the family to visit the campus the following week. And after a few more conversations and text messages, he told them to pack enough bags for the junior defensive lineman to stay long term. So Walter Jr. and his wife Yolunda rented a Chevy Suburban and made the 12-hour drive. 

"I was like ‘man do y’all move that fast?’ He was like ‘yes sir, if you bring his stuff and we come to an agreement he can stay,’ " his dad said. "So we brought an extra bag and some of his things and toured the campus. We liked everything we saw, the academic part, the athletic part, and the rest was history." 

Nolen III  was a little homesick at first, but once he got settled, he established himself as one of the nation's top defensive prospects. 

"It’s nothing like high school. It’s like you’re in college," Nolen III said. "The coaches want the best of you and you can get your spot taken at any time. It was great. I love the competition. Anywhere I can go to face the best competition I go."

But as COVID-19 swept across the country and hit Florida particularly hard, Walter Jr. and Yolunda began to think about bringing their son back home. 

"One day my wife called me and she was like ‘I’m going to get Walter because I don’t want to take a chance,'" Nolen Jr. said. "I couldn’t argue with her.  And that’s how it happened. IMG understood, they were like well maybe we can try again next year." 

Finding a home at St. Benedict

When Nolen III got back to Olive Branch this summer, it was time to pick a school. His parents settled on St. Benedict, where former University of Tennessee defensive end Marlon Walls is coaching. 

"When I talked to him I was like 'man if I bring him over there can you get him ready for the next level?' " Nolen Jr. said. "They just announced that he was No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation and that’s all fine and dandy but we were looking for someone who could make sure he’s ready to contribute Day 1 for someone's college team. We had a long talk and out of all the schools in Memphis, and there was a lot that wanted him to come, that was the answer."

St. Benedict at Auburndale junior Walter Nolen, 16, on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, at the school in Cordova.

Walls said that Nolen's size, explosion off the line of scrimmage, and aggressive mindset would allow him to dominate at the high school level regardless of where he went to school and that his role in developing the prized prospect is to teach him all nuances and details of the game that he learned while playing in the SEC. 

"He’s going to touch a college campus with the mindset of Coach Walls has taught me pretty much every block I’m going to see," Walls said. "How to use my hands, what to look for when I’m watching tape, am I looking for a low punch or a high punch. That’s the part where I can get him better. But he’s been special like that from day one." 

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Nolen III said that he's known Walls since the eighth grade and that he trust's the coach's guidance on more than just football. 

"His love for you, he’s going to make sure you know it." said Nolen III. "Some of these other coaches just worry about the sports, he worries about it all, academics, sports, making sure you’re eating right, all that,"

Nolen III said that he came to St. Benedict "on a mission" to turn the program around and plans to stay there for the rest of his high school career. He said he's happy to be back home. 

"I missed it. You miss home no matter where you go. You can be at the top, but you’ll always miss home. It feels good to come back to your roots," said Nolen III.