When a reporter walked into the University of Georgia football team's locker room in Sanford Stadium two Saturdays ago, a Bulldogs assistant coach spotted a familiar face and asked, "How many yards did Darius Walker have today?"
The Bulldogs have long kept a close eye on Walker, who grew up less than an hour from the Georgia campus. During his senior season at Buford High School, Walker publicly said he wanted to play for the Bulldogs. But Georgia never offered him a scholarship.
So when Walker ran for 115 yards and two touchdowns in his Notre Dame debut on Sept. 11, leading the Fighting Irish to a 28-20 upset of then-No. 8 Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium, more than a few fans called Georgia's coaches to ask why they didn't want Walker.
"I just wanted to play for a team that wanted me to be there and wanted me to play for them," Walker said. "Since Georgia didn't offer me a scholarship, I guess they didn't want me there, and I didn't want to be there."
Notre Dame Coach Tyrone Willingham was more than willing to have him. Walker, 5 feet 11 and 200 pounds, was the top prospect in the Fighting Irish's otherwise mediocre recruiting class. Going into Saturday's game against undefeated Navy at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Walker has averaged 87.2 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns in five games.
Walker, 19, didn't play in the Fighting Irish's 20-17 loss to Brigham Young in their Sept. 4 opener because Willingham said the freshman needed to improve his blocking and all-around game. But against Michigan, Walker ran for 61 yards in the fourth quarter, helping the Irish win a game that took considerable pressure off Willingham, who had lost 10 of his previous 15 games as Notre Dame's coach.
"I thought based on his high school performance, just watching him, depending on his maturity, which we needed to see once he arrived on campus, that his skill [level] would allow him to help us this year," Willingham said.
With senior tailback Ryan Grant healthy again -- he missed the team's 38-3 win over Washington and 41-16 loss to Purdue with a pulled left hamstring -- Walker isn't being asked to carry as much of a load. In last week's 23-15 win over Stanford, Grant ran for 67 yards and two touchdowns, and Walker ran 20 times for 82 yards.
"I think Darius has done a really good job stepping up," Grant said. "He doesn't play like a freshman."
Walker was one of the most decorated players in Georgia high school history. In four seasons at Buford High, he ran for 5,675 yards and 91 touchdowns, leading the Wolves to 45 consecutive wins and three state titles. As a senior, Walker ran for 2,406 yards and 46 touchdowns, breaking Herschel Walker's 24-year-old state record of 42 touchdowns.
Walker, whose father, Jimmy Walker, played football at Arkansas and for the Minnesota Vikings, also was an honor roll student, plays the saxophone and plans on majoring in performing arts at Notre Dame. Jimmy Walker and his wife, LaVerne, moved to South Bend, Ind., this summer to be closer to their son. They attend most of the Fighting Irish's practices and have been to all of their games.
"My parents always told me they would support me where ever I wanted to go," Walker said. "Since I chose a school that was so far from home, we all decided it would be best for the family if they moved up here with me."
Willingham said Walker's parents have helped the freshman adjust to college and the scrutiny that comes with playing at Notre Dame.
"Any time you can have a strong support system around you, it allows you to adapt a little easier to the environment you're placed in," Willingham said. "I think having his family here has been that kind of support system for him."