How Derel Walker went from open tryout find to top rookie, but paid $200 for it
WINNIPEG—Derel Walker might be the greatest possible advertisement for CFL teams' free agent camps, the annual events most teams hold in locations across the U.S. that are essentially open tryouts. Players from all backgrounds (big colleges, smaller colleges, and even some CFL veterans who have fallen out of the league) show up and pay a fee to work out in front of coaches and executives, and while the odds are incredibly long (for example, the Calgary Stampeders evaluated about 600 players in various tryouts in 2014, inviting only around 30 to minicamp and having those 30 compete with a similar group of CFL veterans for 15 to 20 final roster spots), some true gems are discovered this way. Walker, who won the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie Award Thursday night, is one such remarkable find. He said Thursday the tryout camp experience was a grueling one, though.
"I didn't know what to expect, to be honest with you," Walker said. "I knew I had a three-hour drive to Dallas, and then we were out there all day, eight to about six o'clock at night, and then I had a three-hour drive back home. But it was all worth it; I'm here now."
Walker (who has the terrific Twitter handle of @Dee_Sky_Walker) certainly is. He posted 89 catches for 1,110 yards (fifth in the league) and six touchdowns this season, and gave the Eskimos' passing attack a second reliable option to go along with Adarius Bowman. Those totals are even more impressive when you consider that he started the year on the practice squad. He said that time was valuable in helping him adjust to the CFL, though.
"They developed me," Walker said. "While I was on the practice squad, I was learning the system, learning the game, because it's clearly different than American football."
Walker said getting used to the CFL's extensive pre-snap motion was the biggest change for him.
"Just all the motion, in American football, only one person can go at a time, and they can't go forward," he said. "I'm trying to learn the motion and all that. Clearly, I must have got it down."
Overcoming the odds of tryout camp to even make the CFL is remarkable, much less do as well as Walker has, but he said he wasn't worried about the odds in that camp.
"I was always confident," he said. "Confidence is the key. I used to not be this way, but then my mindset changed, a switch just flipped. Everything's just been going great for me."
He didn't get his $200 tryout fee refunded, though.
"No, I didn't, I wish I was able to, right!" he said with a laugh. "But I think I've made an honest living up here."
Walker said his success isn't just about his ability, but also proving he can be a reliable target.
"You have to get the quarterback's trust, the coach's trust," he said. "You have to know your play, your assignment every snap of the game. Once you get that trust, it's up to the quarterback to trust you, and after he knows about you a certain number of times, he's going to have faith in you that you're going to come down with the ball."
Walker comes from an impressive football background, playing at powerhouse Texas A&M in 2012 and 2013 and then earning a free-agent contract with the NFL's Tennessee Titans in 2014 (he was released at the end of the preseason that year), but he said Wednesday that Grey Cup Week has been a new experience for him.
"This is an amazing feeling," he said. "I've never been in this situation before, at the championship of the whole entire league. Of course, I had bowl games and all that in college and whatnot, but this is the championship of the whole league. It's just amazing; I can't even really describe it, to be honest with you."
Walker said the CFL's level of play compares well with what he experienced at A&M and in the NFL.
"The CFL's right up there, man, it's right up there, no lie about that," he said.
He said it's been terrific playing with a great group of teammates, who have helped him elevate his game.
"Everything I've done, I couldn't have done without my teammates, without my receiving corps, quarterback, o-line, defence making plays, all that," he said. "The whole receiving corps, I can depend on every one of them. The whole team, period. I can depend on my teammates.
One teammate who stands out is Bowman, the eight-year CFL veteran who was second in the league this year with 1,304 receiving yards. Walker said he's learned a ton from Bowman, and also appreciates the way he keeps the Eskimos loose.
"There's so much you can say about this guy," Walker said. "Great guy, great character, he's cracking jokes all the time in the huddle just to ease the tension and all that. We have fun. ...He helped me so much, bringing me in, showing me the ropes, coaching me up. Anything I can do better, he's going to let me know."
At A&M, Walker played with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel (now with the Cleveland Browns), and even caught Manziel's last college pass. He said Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly reminds him a bit of Manziel with his scrambling and rushing ability.
"They both like to run around back there," Walker said. "I like mobile quarterbacks, they extend the plays. ...With Mike, I know he's always going to extend the plays, he's going to run it or throw it, so you have to always keep your head on a swivel and always use the scramble route if he's scrambling."
Walker said he appreciates that the Eskimos' offence has some similarities to the spread attack A&M ran while Manziel was their quarterback.
"We ran that every day, every week at A&M," he said. "I'm comfortable with it, I love it."
Walker's under contract for next season, but his success in the CFL might eventually get him back on the NFL radar. He said he's not thinking about that right now, though.
"I haven't decided at all," he said. "I'm just up here playing ball and trying to win this Grey Cup with my brothers."
Walker's come a long way since that open tryout in Dallas, and he said he's incredibly thankful to be at the Grey Cup.
"It's such a blessing," he said. "I'm so happy right now, I'm just enjoying myself."
There's one thing that would make him even more thrilled, though.
"What would make me even happier is to win it all Sunday," he said. "That would be the icing on the cake."