Underexposed Walker provides balance for Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Darius Walker strolls across the carpet, scanning the Isban Auditorium for his first victim.

He spots John Latina, Notre Dame's unassuming offensive line coach, sitting at a table filled with microphones.

"Yeah, coach!" Walker croons, bobbing his head. "You tell 'em."

After stopping again to rag on Fighting Irish wide receiver Chase Anastasio, Walker finds a seat and, suavely, answers questions for the next 20 minutes. When it's over, he again becomes Darius the Menace, zeroing in on a cameraman interviewing tackle Ryan Harris.

Notre Dame's junior running back cozies up behind the cameraman, directly in Harris' sight line, and mouths words at his teammate. Several seconds pass before the cameraman looks over his shoulder. In a flash, Walker is gone. Harris never flinches.

"He gets me," Harris says later. "I get him sometimes, too. We spend so much time around each other. If you don't play around, we'd get sick of each other and punch each other in the face."

The only punches Walker absorbs these days come from opposing defenders. And even those don't sting as much as they used to.

Walker is hitting his stride in his third season as Notre Dame's top rusher and resident jokester. After finishing last season with a flourish -- he averaged 129.3 yards in the last four games -- Walker opened the year with 99 rushing yards Saturday against Georgia Tech. Walker's performance in his native state propped up a plunging Irish offense, which surged late for a face-saving, 14-10 win.

"This really is the best that I've ever felt coming into a season," Walker says. "Comfortable is the best word I can use to describe it. You feel comfortable getting the ball, comfortable making defenders miss, comfortable making moves and comfortable even getting hit."

Walker is also comfortable off the field, especially during Notre Dame's interview sessions. Several weeks ago, on his way out of the auditorium, he craned his neck above the cameras filming star quarterback Brady Quinn.

When there was a pause, Walker, a singer in high school, piped up in his best broadcaster's voice.

"How often do you have to audible out of a run play," Walker asked, "and why would you do that?

Brady blushed and, after a brief eye roll, faced his inquisitor.

"That's a tough question because I've got a great running back," he said. "He's obviously very skilled with the ball, but sometimes those wide receivers need some love, too."

Quinn's answer was given in jest, but Walker understands the reality of playing in an offense crowded with talent. The Irish boast Heisman candidate Quinn and All-American wide receiver Jeff Samardzija. Also back this season is two-time leading wide receiver Rhema McKnight.

The passing game and its pinups get most of the pub, but arguably no Irish offensive player has been more consistent in the last five games than Walker. In 2005, he averaged 4.7 yards a carry and had only two games of less than 70 rushing yards.

More important, Walker has been productive even when his teammates struggle. He rushed for a career-high three touchdowns on just 16 carries in the Fiesta Bowl, accounting for Notre Dame's only scoring in an otherwise anemic performance.

"He's helped us out so many times, it's unbelievable," Harris says. "He's changed games for us."

The Irish managed only 14 points last week, a low under coach Charlie Weis, but Walker still contributed. He had 22 carries and fell just shy of his 10th career 100-yard game.

Walker had 77 yards in the second half, including a 13-yard scoring run that put Notre Dame ahead for good.

"This really is the best that I've ever felt coming into a season. ... You feel comfortable getting the ball, comfortable making defenders miss, comfortable making moves and comfortable even getting hit."
-- Darius Walker

"It's a characteristic of Darius that you seldom see," Quinn says. "He's somebody that, for some reason or another, always seems to step up when everyone else is tired. Seems to have that extra burst."

Walker's summer conditioning helped his stamina, though he won't be overworked early.

"You have to learn your players and feel when is it too much," Weis says. "Last year, when we played Stanford, he got the ball in the mid- to high-30s [in carries] and was still ticking well at the end of the game. But remember now, this is a long season."

Walker had career highs in both carries (35) and rushing yards (186) against Stanford, his highest totals since an unforgettable debut against Michigan (31 carries, 115 yards) in 2004. His 6-yard touchdown run with 55 seconds left was the game-winner, as the Irish left Stanford Stadium with a BCS berth intact.

The game put Walker over 1,000 yards rushing (he also finished the year with 43 receptions, a record for an Irish running back). And before bowl preparation, Walker surprised his offensive line.

"He took us all out to Pizza Hut," guard Dan Santucci recalls. "We got pizzas and stuff like that. He even got us some desserts. He went all out."

Harris isn't so sure about the last part.

"He made sure that it was more of a buffet style and we couldn't take advantage," he says, smiling.

Walker claims the linemen can devour as much as they want this winter if all goes well this fall. The Irish face a major challenge Saturday in Penn State, which ranked seventh nationally last season in rushing defense (93 ypg).

But even the looming figure of Paul Posluszny doesn't unnerve Walker, who could challenge Allen Pinkett's school record for rushing attempts (889).

Last year Walker called Weis' complex playbook a "phone book." This year it's more like CliffsNotes.

"Linebacker flow, coverages, shifts and all of that terminology that comes along with football," Walker says, "it's just so much easier to grasp and to understand.

"The game is slower now. It's almost like it's back to your high school days."

Those were great days for Walker, who broke Herschel Walker's Georgia state single-season touchdown record with 46 as a senior at Buford High School. He hopes to have similar success this fall -- with plenty of laughs along the way.

"He runs around like it's second nature to him," Santucci says. "Real relaxed, definitely a natural. He's doing what he loves and what he's good at."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.