WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Whether he intended it or not, Tyrunn Walker piled more pressure on himself than he was already facing when he decided to ball up his fist and swing it at teammate Zach Strief on Aug. 1.
Walker had not accomplished much in the NFL since making the Saints as an undrafted rookie in 2012, after which he didn’t play a snap as a rookie and then appeared in only seven regular-season games his second season. Yet there he was that day getting in the face of, shoving, and trying to punch Strief, the tackle in his ninth year with the Saints and the NFL.
“It’s D-line play — it’s a fight on the line every down,” Walker said of the scuffle after practice Sunday. “That’s just how it goes — it comes with the territory.”
Still, Walker had better have been ready to back up the tough act he was putting on for observers of his team’s training camp at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. The good news for him is that he was.
Walker recorded a quarterback sack at the Saints’ intrasquad scrimmage the next day. Then, in the Saints’ 26-24 preseason victory at St. Louis on Friday, he obligated the game’s announcers to repeat his name numerous times, amassing a team-high six tackles, one sack for a loss of 14 yards, three takedowns behind the line of scrimmage and a QB hit.
Now, Walker finds himself in a familiar setting: keeping preseason dominance in perspective and hoping to replicate it when meaningful games kick off.
A native of New Iberia who played in college at Tulsa, Walker landed on his home state’s NFL team by leading it in sacks (three) during the 2012 preseason. He was one of two undrafted rookies to crack the roster that preseason, but before those enchanted by his storyline got too ahead of themselves, he was left inactive for 15 of 16 games and didn’t play in the only one for which he dressed out.
Walker again reported to training camp in 2013 with no guarantees. It didn’t matter — he retained his job by ranking among the team’s leaders with nine tackles (all solo) and two pass breakups on a defense that surrendered the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL.
Though better, Walker’s campaign after his NFL redshirt season wasn’t wholly satisfying. He missed nine games with a hurt knee, limiting him to 12 tackles (five solo), a sack in a Week 3 win against Miami and a pass break-up in a Dec. 22 defeat at Carolina.
The year offered up its life teachings, though the biggest one had nothing to do with on-field technique.
“It taught me a lesson about taking care of my body,” said Walker, who noted for the record that he and Strief are friends and have moved past the scuffle. “It just taught me a valuable lesson (of) not taking anything for granted.”
All of which followed Walker into his third year. The fight with Strief was a bit of a change, but the eye-catching outing at St. Louis wasn’t.
It’s positioned him as the Saints’ leader in total tackles. It’s put him No. 1 on the Saints in terms of tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
It gave coach Sean Payton cause to issue these words of praise on Sunday: “(Walker) was very disruptive and very active when it comes to grading the tape. ... He is ... very smart ... and knows how to get lined up very quickly, and he has pretty good football awareness that serves him pretty well.”
But Walker has seen this enough to realize the value of the St. Louis trip isn’t his numbers on the stat sheet — it’s the game footage that highlights what weaknesses he must shore up if he wants to contribute more in the fall and winter months than he has during his NFL career so far.
“It was good to get out there and compete ... against players other than my teammates, (but in) preseason games like that, stats don’t matter,” Walker said. “I use it is a teaching tape to work on what I need to work on.”
And by Walker’s evaluation, that tape displayed too much poor footwork on his part. It’s an issue he said he struggled with when training camp initially opened in late July, momentarily resolved, but then slid back into in St. Louis, a development that sucked much of the joy out of the win and his performance.
“The goal is to be the No. 1 D-line, the No. 1 defense,” Walker said. “I am just out here trying to make myself better for the team.”