KNOXVILLE — It didn’t take long for new Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to notice Chris Walker.
Walker, a junior defensive end, arrived at 6 a.m. every day for offseason workouts earlier this year. He always showed up on time, worked hard and made a strong first impression with his natural athletic ability.
The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Walker struck Kiffin as an explosive player even before he was named UT’s most improved defensive player this spring.
The Volunteers left Saturday’s Orange and White Game feeling better about some across-the-board progress in their first spring practice under coach Lane Kiffin, but perhaps nothing stood out more than Walker’s emergence as a pass-rushing threat.
He has proved to be a perfect fit for Kiffin’s signature Tampa 2 system, which depends on a productive outside pass rush.
“This system’s just giving me the opportunity to go out and play ball,” said Walker, who recorded three sacks as a backup last season. “I think that’s the big difference between this year and last year.”
Walker said Kiffin’s defense calls for ends to spend less time dealing with contain responsibilities than the scheme used by former defensive coordinator John Chavis.
That plays right into the strengths of Walker, a fleet-footed end who specializes in getting to the quarterback.
“I think that this system just fits (Walker) well,” defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said. “We haven’t done anything special or different as far as the way we coach him or not coach him. I just think that he’s bought into the system, and the system fits him.
“We’re a pass-rushing team, and he has the ability. He has enough explosion to play the run. And all the movement and rushing and all that, he’s really good at it.”
The younger Kiffin called Walker “the most dominant player on our team” during spring drills when junior All-America safety Eric Berry was held out of full-contact work after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.
Monte Kiffin quickly identified Walker during those early-morning, offseason workouts as someone who could “be the kind of player that we’re looking for” on defense. Still, the coordinator admitted wondering to himself, “Could he really do it?”
Walker wasted no time providing an emphatic answer.
“He can, and he’s got a great future,” the elder Kiffin said. “I think Coach O’s done a great job with him, and I think he’s maxing out right now, because he has the ability. ... He’s a very explosive player.”