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The Anthony Walker Jr. Highlight Index: Ranking The Franchise’s Top Ten Career Plays

Introducing the most effective way to properly evaluate the best plays from Walker’s career.

NCAA Football: Eastern Illinois at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

We are now exactly one week away from the start of the 2017 NFL Draft, which means it won’t be long before we see Anthony Walker Jr. get selected by an NFL franchise. Just days after winning the Pinstripe Bowl, Walker became the first Northwestern football player since 1996 to declare early for the draft after playing three seasons for the Wildcats. Now, CBS Sports has Walker ranked as the No. 4 inside linebacker in the draft and projects him to be taken between the third and fourth round. But before Walker is selected, it seems necessary to look back at his impressive career and reflect on some of the best plays made by ‘The Franchise’ during his three years at Northwestern. Inspired by The Ringer’s Shea Serrano, we’ll be using a category-based grading system in order to whittle down the best of the best from Walker’s many highlight-worthy plays. The categories are as follows.

Category 1: Degree of difficulty–how hard was this play to make? How many other players could have done this? (0-10 points)

Category 2: Impact on the game–did this play happen at a crucial moment? Does the game swing in the opponent’s favor if Walker doesn’t make this play? (0-10 points)

Category 3: Highlight factor–how much fun was this highlight to watch? Is it SportsCenter Top 10 worthy or just an effective football play? Do you audibly gasp after watching it? (0-5 points)

Category 4: Ferocity of the play–how disrespectful of a play was this? Does Walker absolutely embarrass the opponent? (0-5 points)

But before we start with the top 10, let’s look at three honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut.

Honorable Mention 1. 2014 at Notre Dame

The first highlight takes us back to Walker’s redshirt freshman season. On the road in South Bend, Northwestern trailed 16-20 early in the second quarter as Everett Golson and the Irish offense had just driven into Northwestern territory and faced a third-and-eight. Golson is pressured and his rushed throw is deflected off the right tackle and into the arms of Walker, who returns the ball 65 yards down to the Notre Dame 4-yard line before being chased down by Will Fuller. Justin Jackson would punch it in on the very next play to give the Wildcats a 23-20 lead. Given the magnitude of this play on the result of the game, it scores very high on game impact (9/10) and highlight factor (4/5). However, as a relatively straightforward INT it lacks the degree of difficulty (4/10) and ferocity (0/5) that some of these other plays have — and that’s what ultimately brings it down in the rankings. Did you know Notre Dame went 4-8 last season? Final score: 17/30

Honorable Mention 2. 2016 vs Duke

We move now to 2016, when Northwestern (0-2 at the time) played host to the Duke Blue Devils in Week 3. Facing a third-and-seven early in the second quarter as Duke quarterback Parker Boehme drops back to pass, Walker initially sits back with Justin Jackson-like patience as he waits for an opening to develop. After a few seconds, he finds a hole and eventually gets to Boehme for his first sack of the season. This play scores in the middle of the road for degree of difficulty (6/10) but high on ferocity (4/5) and highlight factor (3/5). However, it loses points on game impact (4/10) given that it was still in the first half and there were still bigger plays to be made later on (hint: keep reading). Final Score: 17/30

Honorable Mention 3. 2016 at Minnesota

Staying in 2016, this next highlight comes from Northwestern’s trip to Minnesota in mid-November. The Wildcats ultimately lost 29-12, but the defense was able to keep it close and gave the offense a chance to get back into the game. We see a great example of that here with Minnesota up 12-0 and facing a third-and-goal from the Northwestern 2-yard line. Running back Rodney Smith is hit in the backfield by Jordan Thompson but manages to bounce off the tackle before he is met by Walker, who finishes the job for a loss of 11 yards, forcing the Gophers to settle for a field goal. I gave Walker a slight bump in points for finishing the job on this crucial third down and keeping the game within reach, but there are better plays that encapsulate Walker’s talent. This one is a 5/10 for degree of difficulty and game impact and a 3/5 for highlight factor and ferocity. Final Score: 17/30

10. 2016 vs Illinois

Moving on to the top 10, this play comes from Northwestern’s 2016 matchup vs. Illinois. Here, we see Illini running back Reggie Corbin try to run for a first down on third-and-eight before he is chased down by Walker for a loss of nine yards. Walker makes it look easy on this play as he glides across the field to make the tackle for loss and finishes it by throwing down Corbin with force. I give it an 8 for degree of difficulty, 3 for game impact, 3 for highlight factor and 4 for ferocity. Final Score: 18/30

9. 2015 vs Penn State

Our first play from 2015, Walker’s breakout year, comes from Northwestern’s dramatic 23-21 win over Penn State at Ryan Field. Here, Walker displays the same patience we saw in the earlier sack highlight as he hangs back and lets the blocks unfold before sprinting in and pummeling Christian Hackenberg. I’ll score this a 6 for degree of difficulty, 3 for game impact, 4 for highlight factor and a perfect 5/5 for ferocity. Final Score: 18/30

8. 2015 vs Stanford

Okay, I’m gonna cheat here and give you two plays in one, an All-American sequence from Northwestern’s 2015 season-opening 16-6 victory over Stanford. The Wildcats’ defense was outstanding all game and Walker led the way with 10 tackles, three of which were for a loss. We see one of those above as he chases down Bryce Love in the backfield for a 2-yard loss, but Walker wasn’t finished just yet:

On the very next play, Walker chases down Christian McCaffrey for another 2-yard loss. I think these back-to-back plays perfectly demonstrate the value that Walker brought to the Northwestern defense the past two seasons. He was able to make his presence felt at all times and this was really the game where we saw his career take off. I give this sequence a 7 for degree of difficulty, and 4’s across the board for game impact, highlight factor and ferocity. Final Score: 19/30

7. 2015 vs Illinois (at Solider Field)

In the Wildcats’ 2015 regular season finale vs. Illinois at Soldier Field, Walker was in prime form as he turned in a career high 3.5 tackles for loss en route to a 24-14 win to give Northwestern victory No. 10 on the season. On this play, we see Walker perfectly timing the snap count on third-and-six as he wastes no time getting to Wes Lunt. He bites on a pump fake, but is still able to regain his composure and bring Lunt down for a sack. I give this a 8 for degree of difficulty (if nothing else for Walker’s ability to perfectly jump the snap), a 3 for game impact, a 4 for highlight factor and a 5 for ferocity. This is one of those plays that drives offensive coordinators crazy. Final Score: 20/30

6. 2016 at Minnesota

We head back to Minnesota with a play that is one of Walker’s most underrated highlights in my opinion. After finally getting on the board late in the third quarter to narrow the deficit to 15-6, Northwestern kicked off to Jalen Myrick, who brought the ball out just past the 20-yard line for what appeared to be a routine kickoff return. It is not until after the Northwestern kickoff unit starts jumping up and down and the referees signal NU possession that we realize that Walker single-handedly ripped the ball out of Myrick’s arms as he was going down (the later camera angles do a great job showing how everything unfolds). I give this an 8 for degree of difficulty, a 5 for game impact, a 4 for highlight factor and a perfect 5 for ferocity. Final Score: 22/30

5. 2015 vs Purdue

This next play comes from a near scare that Northwestern had at home against Purdue in 2015. After a sluggish start, the Wildcats and the Boilermakers were tied 14-14 heading into the fourth quarter. Facing a third-and-two from deep in their own territory, Purdue quarterback David Blough ran a read option, trying to catch the Wildcats’ defense off guard and run for the first down himself. Walker was not fooled by the option and ran into the backfield virtually untouched to drop Blough for a loss of three yards. This play forced Purdue to punt and set the Northwestern offense up with great field position, which they would ultimately capitalize on to score the game-winning touchdown with 4:37 remaining en route to a 21-14 win. This was one of Walker’s 20.5 tackles for loss in 2015, the fourth most of any player in the nation that year and the third most in Northwestern single-season history. Walker gets a bump in points for degree of difficulty (7/10) by correctly sniffing out the option and in game impact (8/10) for helping get the ball back to the offense in a big moment. He also gets a 3 for highlight factor and a perfect 5 for ferocity thanks to the big hit he put on Blough. Final Score: 23/30

4. 2016 vs Pittsburgh (Pinstripe Bowl)

Switching to a recent, much more memorable game, this next highlight looks back at one of the last plays Walker ever made in a Northwestern uniform during the Wildcats’ victory in the Pinstripe Bowl. After falling behind 28-24 with 8:23 left in the fourth quarter, Pitt turned to explosive playmaker Quadree Henderson for a spark on the first play of the ensuing drive. Henderson tried to get to the outside but was cut off by Trae Williams. He was then met by Walker and Brett Walsh and, somehow, Walker ripped the football away from Henderson, giving Northwestern excellent field position. Thanks to that good field position and a 37-yard field goal from Jack Mitchell, the Wildcats would go up 31-24, a score that would hold for the rest of the game. Walker gets an 8 in degree of difficulty for punching the ball out, a 9 in game impact for giving the ball back to the offense at a crucial point in the game, as well as a 4 for highlight factor and a 3 for ferocity. Final Score: 24/30

3. 2014 at Penn State

Walker’s breakout season may have been 2015, but many consider his first emergence onto the scene to be in his redshirt freshman season when the Wildcats traveled to Penn State. This was Walker’s first career start at middle linebacker and he didn’t disappoint in the role, leading the team with eight tackles as the Wildcats rolled to a 29-6 victory over the Nittany Lions. Walker delivered the final nail in the coffin in the fourth quarter when he jumped in front of a Hackenberg pass, recorded his first career interception and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown to make the score 20-6. I give this a 7 for degree of difficulty (based on his read on the pass along with the speed required on the return), a 10 for its dagger-like game impact, a 5 for highlight factor and a 4 for ferocity. Final Score: 26/30

2. 2016 vs Pittsburgh (Pinstripe Bowl)

Moving back to the Pinstripe Bowl, this play comes from the first quarter when Pitt held a 3-0 lead and was in the midst of a 11 play, 76-yard drive that put it on the Northwestern one-yard line. Facing a fourth-and-goal, the Panthers elected to go for it and put the ball in the hands of their star running back, James Conner. Just inches from scoring, Conner leapt for the end zone but was met head on by Walker, who grabbed Conner’s legs and pulled him back with superhuman strength before he could break the plane. Looking back at this game, I consider this play to be the turning point of the game; rather than falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter, Northwestern put together a 10 play, 99-yard drive on the ensuing possession to take the lead and the momentum. However, I think this play also embodies the role Walker played for the Northwestern defense in the 2016 season. He was the captain, the person that the defense looked to when they needed a big play. I gave this a perfect 10 in degree of difficulty and a perfect 5 in highlight factor, along with a 7 in game impact and a 5 in ferocity. Final Score: 27/30

1. 2016 vs Duke

After being branded ‘The Franchise’ by Northwestern’s athletic department leading up to the start of the 2016 season, the expectations surrounding Walker were sky high. However, after being hampered by a knee injury that kept him limited in practice and parts of training camp, which almost certainly had something to do with underwhelming performances in the Wildcats’ two losses to start the season, some began to question if the hype around Walker was warranted. With the teams tied 7-7, Duke had moved the ball 54 yards down to the Northwestern 17-yard line and was threatening to go up 14-7 and potentially put the Wildcats on the brink of a catastrophic winless non-conference effort. On first down, quarterback Daniel Jones keeps the ball on a read option. As Jones approaches the line of scrimmage, he finds himself face to face with Walker and attempts to cut inside and juke past him. The Franchise isn’t having it. He reaches in with one hand and strips the ball from Jones’ grasp, recovers it and returns it 11 yards to give the Wildcats possession. Northwestern would take the lead later that quarter and never relinquish it, going on to win 24-13. When I talked to Walker about this play back in October, he said the play was not only huge for the outlook of this game, but for the Wildcats’ season as a whole, providing the team with a “big spark” that it so much needed. This play represents everything we look for in a big play: a high degree of difficulty, a change in the landscape of the game and an instant highlight with downright ferocity. I’ll give it perfect marks in all four categories. Final Score: 30/30