Potential No. 1 NFL draft pick Travon Walker: Georgia D could win at least seven Super Bowls
Travon Walker could be forgiven if he's getting used to a view from the mountaintop.
He was a key figure for the 2021 University of Georgia defense, one that's entered the debate as the best ever in college football history. Walker ultimately earned a ring after the Bulldogs won their first national title in four decades, the defensive lineman contributing a sack in each of his team's College Football Playoff victories in January.
Two months later, Walker distinguished himself at the NFL scouting combine, the 6-5, 272-pounder laying down a 4.51-second 40-yard dash time and posting a 35½-inch vertical jump before showing off the silky movement skills that allowed him to operate in so many capacities for that all-time Dawgs D – even functioning well with coverage responsibilities when he wasn't chasing down a ball carrier from the back side.
Thursday night, he might well be No. 1 yet again, presumably on the Jacksonville Jaguars' very short list of candidates to be the 2022 NFL draft's top overall pick.
Yet it doesn't appear the adulation has gone to the head of the Thomaston, Georgia, native, who seems more than comfortable sharing the spotlight.
"It's been a great experience, and it's been a very fun journey," Walker told USA TODAY Sports recently. "Just taking it all in.
"I'm just cherishing the moment."
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Pretty boilerplate pre-draft sentiment. But if you want to know what Walker really cherishes, ask him about that new title and the role his fellow defenders played in securing it.
"It was definitely an exciting moment to do something for the state of Georgia, the University of Georgia. Really meant a lot – especially to be part of one of the best defenses to ever play the game of college football," he said. "It's something I'll never forget."
One of the best ever, Travon?
"Me personally, I'd definitely have to save we'll be remembered as the best defense in college football history," Walker laughed. "From a college standpoint, they'll probably compare us to the Chicago Bears defense back in the day."
Notably, those Chicago teams only won one Super Bowl – though the '85 Bears are NFL royalty. But what if this Georgia defense, which is likely to have seven players drafted by the end of Friday night, was allowed to enter the NFL intact?
"Man, that'd be crazy," gushed Walker, noting more of his former teammates will be headed to the pros in 2023.
"If you did that, we'd definitely have a minimum of seven Super Bowls, most definitely."
Ironically, the Bulldogs' defensive excellence – they had the luxury of a deep rotation, particularly on the line – probably suppressed Walker's numbers and certainly his playing time. He had six sacks and 7½ tackles for losses in 2021, but just 9½ sacks and 13 TFLs over the course of his three seasons.
It's not a résumé typical of a No. 1 pick.
"Travon Walker's the most talented defensive lineman in this draft. Now does the production match the talent? No it doesn't," said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.
"Then why is he going this high? He's going this high because he has awesome talent, got a ton of hurries, he was very versatile."
Kiper's ESPN colleague, former NFL safety and personnel executive Louis Riddick, is more pointed.
"I think at the very top of the draft, it really is about mitigating risk – especially when you're talking about the first pick overall. I don't see any way you can go with Travon Walker at No. 1," said Riddick. "I see him as being one of those kind of guys who right now is rising because he is 6-5, 270 and runs 4.51. But the play on tape does not match that athletic ability."
Walker doesn't duck the criticism.
"I feel like I could've taken advantage of a lot more plays on my own," he said, adding he's focused on technique – specifically tying his hands and feet together while pursuing quarterbacks.
Yet he was used in a variety of roles, sometimes lined up wide against tackles who couldn't keep up with him, other times over the center or guards who might be overpowered by Walker, who might even drop into coverage. Moving around that much isn't conducive to compiling huge sack totals but does suggest Walker was willing to do whatever was necessary for the collective good.
"I feel like putting the team first, it just puts you in a lot better position down the road," Walker said. "Everybody (gets) so focused on self, self, self. But really, if your team isn't winning games, then you won't get as much attention obviously.
"I just feel like putting the team first is the goal for me, that's what I'm here to do – winning the Super Bowl and to make my teammates better while proving myself as well."
Walker, who's become a spokesman for USAA's NFL Salute to Service program, suspects his selfless attitude emanates from his father, a former Marine.
"The guidelines that my dad gave me growing up," he said, "I really feel like played a big part in (my success) and how I turned out."
However he is willing to offer advice to his next defensive coordinator when asked how he's best utilized.
"I'd say definitely mainly an edge player but can also go on the inside on third down to help get more outside linebackers in to rush as well," Walker said. "I don't mind rushing on the inside, but I do feel a lot more comfortable on the edge."
He was clearly comfortable at the combine, which sent his draft stock soaring. Walker didn't understand all the hullabaloo.
"I mean, it was no surprise to me," he said. "That's something that I do every day – just simple drills.
"A lot of other people said I burst onto the scene, but everybody was sleeping on me."
Are the Jags wide awake now?
Asked where he'll be drafted, Walker says: "I wish I knew."
But he "definitely wouldn't mind" relocating to Jacksonville, which is about a four-hour car ride from Thomaston.
"My mom would love that, not a big flier," he chuckled.
And, of course, he could have a front row seat to those Georgia-Florida games, the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" annually staged in the Jaguars' stadium.
But first, the Jags have to turn in a draft card with Walker's name on it.
"Let's say that Trent Baalke, general manager of the Jaguars, wants to go projection over production – meaning that he looks at Travon Walker and he thinks about what he could be at the next level," said NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks, who characterized him as a "sideline-to-sideline menace."
"Maybe if he is unleashed, you unlock his potential, and he becomes a dominant player commensurate with being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft."
Even if he doesn't get the opportunity to win seven Lombardi Trophies alongside Georgia buddies like Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean and Quay Walker, Travon Walker has little doubt he'll deliver in the NFL.
"Whoever passes up on me – to each his own," he said. "But you're definitely making a mistake if you don't draft me."
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.