Bulldogs Beat

Quay Walker’s promising evolution from an ‘immature’ hat flip to rotating in UGA’s defense

Quay Walker sat in the Crisp County High School gymnasium with a nation of eyes set on his National Signing Day decision. A four-star recruit and previous Alabama commitment, most people expected him to sign with Tennessee but staying in-state to play at Georgia became a trendy dark horse. A young, exuberant Walker decided to play a game and place an orange Volunteer hat atop his head, only to toss it across the room and reveal a pair of Bulldog-patterned shorts.

Everyone remembers the moment. One that Georgia fans admire, also one that Tennessee fans despise. It added another chapter in a storied rivalry, and neither fan base can forget the moment over 18 months later. (There’s a parody account about Walker’s throw — looking at you, @QuaysUTHat.) For most, it’s the first thought when hearing the linebacker’s name.

Walker hates it.

“I hate talking about it, but I know it’ll be brought up for the rest of my life,” he said in his first media availability as a sophomore at Georgia. “Looking back on it, I think it was very immature of me. I was just a kid from a small town who was happy to be where I was.”

He passed along respects to Tennessee’s program and head coach Jeremy Pruitt on Tuesday. That moment ended a recruiting saga around Walker which involved a rollercoaster-like path. Georgia jumped in on Walker early and had aspirations of pairing him with fellow Crisp County product Markaviest “Big Kat” Bryant — who eventually ended up at Auburn. Walker’s interests drifted elsewhere and his pledge to Alabama spanned eight months while the Bulldogs seemed to be in the rearview.

Walker’s recruiting timeline doesn’t follow his own narrative, however. He didn’t quite know where his best fit lay while still committed to the Crimson Tide.

“Everything got crazy,” Walker said. “There were things that got mixed up. Mixed feelings and mixed emotions.”

An unofficial visit to Georgia on November 18, 2017, provided some perspective, relief and a straighter path. He sat inside Sanford Stadium to watch the Bulldogs beat Kentucky 42-13 en route to a championship run. At last, Walker felt the “love” that he needed from head coach Kirby Smart and staff.

He remained an Alabama pledge up until that afternoon of an infamous hat toss. Walker gave Tennessee its best chance, too, but his heart was set nearly three months before it dramatically became public knowledge.

Once arriving at Georgia, his freshman season could’ve matched his feelings about the hat flip — maybe not to the same extreme. Walker came in with an inexperienced mind and thought outside linebacker or defensive end would be his position when the Bulldogs opened that 2018 campaign against Austin Peay.

He saw action in all 14 games, and most of his fellow freshmen didn’t receive such an opportunity. But most of those snaps came on special teams, and Walker began to move positions and practice at inside linebacker. Frustration set in.

Walker’s transition away from being a “mama’s boy” and the South Georgia lifestyle in Cordele already presented a challenge. Suddenly, things became even tougher within football.

“When you go inside it changes your world,” Smart said. “You go from seeing one thing to seeing everything. You’ve got five linemen that come at you and things are going sideways. He struggled some last year.”

Walker only knew the outside. He had freedom to be a defensive focal point at Crisp County, because he ran his unit as one of the best players — and the No. 1 after Bryant’s departure — on a small-town preps team.

He had to learn the intricacies of Georgia’s defense, which prioritized his development and working past the frustrations of a young player. An element of fitting in had to occur, too when Walker realized that he wouldn’t be the only highly-touted recruit inside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.

“I was a very top-notch player (at Crisp County), so it humbled me very fast,” Walker said. “As soon as I stepped in, I knew things were different — how I had to approach myself, eating right and taking care of myself.”

Walker opened his sophomore season like many other second-year Bulldogs. He no longer worked in the background, but received opportunities in the defensive rotation. Georgia placed trust in Walker to work alongside Monty Rice, Tae Crowder and others on the inside, and the 6-foot-4 defender answered. He recorded four tackles among a unit that allowed six points to Vanderbilt.

“Quay has had a big turnaround from freshman year,” outside linebacker Walter Grant said. “He has taken that from meetings and put it on the field. It showing up now, because he’s getting more reps and playing time.”

Walker has come “a long way,” as Smart put it, from his days of flipping hats and stealing the recruiting spotlight. Based on his progressions, however, Georgia is grateful that afternoon went in its favor.

“It’s amazing how far he’s come with understanding our defense, and being able to pick things up,” Smart said. “He’s a really good at blitzes. The sky’s the limit for him because he’s athletic and big.”

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Brandon Sudge has covered Georgia athletics as a correspondent for The Telegraph since 2016. He focuses on telling the deeper story within football, basketball, gymnastics and other sports. You can follow Brandon on Twitter at @brandonsudge.