UK Football

He arrived as a walk-on. Now he’s a leader UK can’t do without.

Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver Charles Walker (88) celebrates after a touchdown pass to wide receiver Blake Bone (6) (not pictured) during the first half against the Florida Gators at Kroger Field on Saturday, September 23, 2017.
Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver Charles Walker (88) celebrates after a touchdown pass to wide receiver Blake Bone (6) (not pictured) during the first half against the Florida Gators at Kroger Field on Saturday, September 23, 2017.

Charles Walker has had a bad practice or two.

Kentucky’s senior wide receiver swears that he has.

When he was a true freshman walk-on just out of St. Xavier in Louisville, Walker dropped two passes in one practice.

“I moped off the field like someone killed my family because I thought there was no way I was ever going to get another chance,” Walker said.

He got another chance, eventually working his way to a full scholarship in 2016. This final season has been a breakout one for Walker, who is the Cats’ third-leading pass catcher with nine for 100 yards. Walker’s 21.5 yards per punt return leads the Southeastern Conference and is fifth nationally.

But back to those bad practices.

The wide receivers coach at Kentucky can recall just one bad practice for the senior.

“The day we told him he couldn’t practice because of his shoulder” being banged up, Lamar Thomas said of the 5-foot-11, 203-pound slot receiver.

Coaches were concerned that if a ball was thrown anywhere near Walker that he’d dive for it and hurt himself more.

“He didn’t like that too much,” Thomas smiled. “Just shows what type of person he is.”

Walker once practiced an entire spring with a cast on his arm and reportedly only dropped two passes even though he had just one functional arm.

When Walker describes football and how he started playing it, he sounds like a man describing how he first fell in love.

As a Holy Spirit Falcon in Louisville right around the time most boys that age are celebrating their First Communions, Walker played flag football.

It was love at first tug.

“I loved the teamwork that football takes, especially on offense,” Walker described. “You’ve got to have all 11 guys doing their job and it’s just awesome you put your trust in them. When you get (on a team), you’re complete strangers … through time and through practice you grow closer to each other and that’s the beauty of it all.”

There’s just something about Walker and the way he plays the game, every coach and teammate interviewed said of the senior.

“He works his tail off every day,” co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said. “He comes out and he will do anything to get the job done. You just love his energy and what he brings every single day.

“He’s also funny and has a great personality and you love that about him, but he just continually works hard and we know we can count on him.”

Walker’s reliability has made him a go-to receiver for quarterback Stephen Johnson. It’s not a coincidence that Walker had two catches in UK’s final four offensive plays in the final 21 seconds against Florida last week.

On fourth-and-10, Johnson found Walker for 14 yards. The senior got clobbered on the improbable catch.

“He’s so mature in what he does on the field,” Johnson said of Walker, a three-year starter at St. X. “He knows where to go. Me and him are (connected) when it comes to being on the field and knowing what he needs to do, knowing what I’m gonna do. Having him out there really calms me down a little bit, too.”

On second-and-20 and furiously trying to set up what could have been the game-winning field goal, there was Walker again making a grab and shuffling out of bounds.

“He’s reliable,” Coach Mark Stoops said of Walker, who was named UK’s player of the game in the loss in which he had career highs in catches (four) and yards (28). “He makes big plays.”

Because of those types of plays — including amassing 87 yards on three punt returns in that game — the senior has earned the respect of every person who roams the halls of the football training facility.

The wide receivers coach sat Walker down before the start of the season and told him to forget that he ever was a walk-on.

“I told him, ‘You’re a senior. This is you. You’ve been here through ups and downs. … You’ve got to be a leader,’” Thomas said. “These new kids don’t even know you ever were a walk-on and you’ve earned your right to speak and I want you to speak and be you.”

Thomas has played on his share of teams, been a leader in locker rooms over the years.

Every locker room should have a Charles Walker, the coach said.

“I’ve loved that kid for so long,” Thomas said of the senior. “He’s just a great competitor. He’ll do anything for you; he’ll do anything to make the team better and you need teammates like that.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Saturday

Eastern Michigan at Kentucky

4 p.m. (SEC)

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