October 10, 2007

Walters Ignites Offense with Increased Role

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With the ball spiraling through the air last Saturday — whether it was a punt, kickoff, or downfield pass — sophomore Bryan Walters had just one thing on his mind.
“Make sure you catch the ball,” he said. “Can’t turn the ball over.”
No thoughts about which side you’re going to break to on the punt, which move you’re about to use to try and shake the defender?
“No, not at all,” he said. “It’s just reaction [once I get the ball].”
After compiling 221 total yards of offense in Saturday’s 32-15 loss to Harvard — the second time in the last three weeks Walters has topped the 200-yard plateau — Walters seems to be reacting more and more as he adjusts to his added receiver duties.
After catching only three balls for 33 yards last year, head coach Jim Knowles ’87 decided to line up Walters as a receiver in addition to returning punts and kicks. Against Harvard, the Red saw the benefit of a having Walters split wide.
For the whole first half, Walters was doing his thing — winning the field position battle with his punt and kick returns. On the Red’s first possession, he dodged his way to Cornell’s 41-yard line on a 23-yard kickoff return. The offense sputtered after 18 yards and punted it away.
Again, two defensive stops later, Walters fielded a punt and weaved his way through defenders and up the sideline for 16 yards to put the team at midfield. The offense went three-and-out and sent another kick twisting to Harvard.
Even when opportunity presented itself the Red could not take advantage of good field position. The defense shoved Harvard’s offense 18 yards in reverse and forced them to punt from its own three-yard line. Walters took the kick three yards past midfield, and scampered his way to within a few yards of field goal range with the Red still only down 6-0. A pass, sack and fumble, however, gave Harvard the ball just over a minute later.
Despite the lethargic offense, Ford pointed to the importance of Walters continuously placing the Red in good field position.
“Our last few drives of the game we were down at the one[-yard line] struggling to move the ball,” he said. “That puts a lot of strain on the offense. So when you have a guy like [Walters] who can put you in solid field position, it opens up so much more in the offense.”
To this point, whether coincidence or not, Ford had only opened up to Walters on possessions in which he had returned the ball. Walters sees himself as a big-play receiver, and perhaps Ford was thinking along the same lines by throwing to him after big returns.
“I think he’s definitely a threat on the deep ball,” Ford said. “Something about him — when he sees the ball in the air he goes into a second gear. You wouldn’t really think of him as a speedster but he definitely knows how to go up and fight for the ball. So, I’m definitely comfortable throwing deep to him. He has really clean routes so he’s definitely a good guy to go to.”
Walters put it more succinctly; “I see myself as a deep threat for sure. I just try and make a big play when we need it,” he said.
And the numbers back up both players’ opinions. Walters is fourth on the team in receptions with 13 catches, but leads the squad with 185 yards because of a team-best 14.2 yards per catch.
Still, against Harvard, Ford and Walters only connected on one of the first three passes between them (spread between three of the four Red possessions after a Walter’s return). Just before halftime, though, Ford and Walters finally hooked up on three straight passes. After bringing the score to 19-2, Harvard kicked off to Walters at the Cornell two. The return man followed his blockers up to the 29, then lined up as a receiver.
“They were blitzing us pretty heavy and going man-to-man [in coverage],” Ford said. “So we used tempo and tried to keep their defense off balance there and tire out their secondary a little bit.”
On the second play of the drive, Walters pulled down a first-down reception of 10 yards.
“We used a couple of hitch routes and then motioned [Walters] in and we used some quick double moves to get him open where he beat his man,” Ford said. “He did a great job on that drive.”
On the very next play, Walters started a short route, racing several yards before cutting drastically. It was a fake, though, as he froze his defender and continued downfield. Ford lobbed the ball to him and Walters hauled in a 42-yard reception down to Harvard’s 13-yard line.
“It’s all set up by the vertical game — the deep ball,” Walters said. “At Yale, we threw a couple of deep balls and then they started to sit on that. Against Harvard, we just ran the hitch right underneath that which leads off of the vertical game … you can catch that hitch, make a move and go. It’s all vertical.”
When the next play was negated because of a defensive pass interference, Ford again looked to Walters in the endzone, completing the six yard pass to bring the score to 19-9. From the time Walters had first touched the ball at his own two, he had amassed 86 of the 98 yards between him and the endzone — in 40 seconds.
It was Walters’ third receiving touchdown of the season. Sophomore Nick Zerante is the only other receiver with a touchdown, hauling in a fade against Georgetown.
While Walters can’t explain why he’s been the one to hit pay dirt and benefit from endzone tosses from Ford, both quarterback and receiver can attest to a rapport that has matured throughout the year.
“We’re good friends, you know, we hang out a lot,” Walters said. “It was definitely something we had to develop over the last two years. It’s just confidence. He knows where I’ll be. I’ll be in this spot and he’ll know it. You have to build that.”
“[The rapport has] definitely grown,” Ford said. “I feel a lot more comfortable with what he’s going to do and how he’s going to get in front of his defender. That’s definitely helped. And just a lot more reps in practice … so I can know where to put the ball.”