Wallace Davis, now retired after 38 years of coaching football, remembers certain character traits and physical traits of Tim Walton as if it were yesterday.
“He was one of those players where you might say: Don’t weigh him, play him,” Davis said.
Walton was very much on the small side, playing for Davis’ Carver High Tigers in Columbus, Ga., in the late 1980s. But he played big, and had big thoughts.
He blossomed into an all-state defensive back, and an all-city quarterback playing both ways for Carver.
“He was definitely an overachiever, and he went far beyond what the average player may do,” Davis said. “He was a student of the game of football. He always prepared himself in advance. He definitely was a real good leader and he had a lot of players follow him.”
Never in trouble, always on time, Walton was the kind of person who made borderline players — in terms of character — avoid making bad decisions.
“He’s definitely the type of person that will make a difference for the Rams,” Davis said. “I think coach Jeff Fisher has a very strong vision to hire Tim.”
In a move that becomes official either today or Friday, Walton is joining the Rams as defensive coordinator. At age 41, Walton is on the fast track. But he’s not an overnight sensation, either, working for 14 years as a college coach before joining the Detroit Lions as secondary coach in 2009.
Walton almost joined the Rams a year ago, as part of Fisher’s original staff in St. Louis. But he turned down an opportunity to become assistant defensive coordinator/passing game to stay with Detroit. No one was happier with Walton’s decision at that time than Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham.
“I almost died the other day,” Cunningham told MLive.com during the 2012 Senior Bowl. “I wanted to just sleep for a while, and Tim Walton is getting ready to go to St. Louis. ... I don’t know how much money he was offered, but it was a lot. He didn’t go. Think about that. He did not go. That says a lot. He works for me and is a great friend.”
Well, that was last year. This time around, Fisher made Walton an offer he couldn’t refuse as Rams defensive coordinator. And if you believe Cunningham, who has been around the NFL forever, the Rams are getting a good one.
“I think we have the finest secondary coach I’ve ever worked with in my life,” Cunningham told Detroit reporters at the end of the 2010 season. “Everybody thinks I overrate things, but I don’t. Tim Walton’s the best secondary coach I’ve ever seen —other than Marty Schottenheimer. Tim Walton is like a Woody Hayes disciple — he’s consistent. ...”
Walton didn’t play for Woody Hayes, but he did play for Ohio State and was a co-captain at defensive back for the Buckeyes in 1993.
He went into coaching almost immediately after his playing days ended, starting out at Bowling Green (Ohio) State in 1995. He eventually caught the eye of Tommy West at the University of Memphis, who hired Walton as secondary coach in 2000, and then hired him again in 2008 as defensive coordinator.
“He is a no-nonsense coach, but yet has a good relationship with players,” said West, most recently with Southern Mississippi. “Tough love is what I would call it. A great communicator with the players. A lot of guys can’t be tough and still communicate — and he can do that. He can be very demanding, but in a very positive type of way that he’s trying to get you better.”
Between his two seasons at Memphis (2000-2001) as secondary coach and his one season there as coordinator (2008), Walton worked at Syracuse, Louisiana State and Miami. In 2000 at Memphis, the Tigers ranked fifth in the nation in total defense. He was part of LSU’s national championship team in 2003. In 2005 when he was at Miami, the Hurricanes led the nation in total defense.
“He did a nice job as a coordinator,” West said, referring to Walton’s 2008 season with Memphis. “I wish I’d have been able to keep him. But he left me to go to Detroit. I mean, you’ve got to make that move (to the NFL). I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep him long. ... I thought he’d be on a pretty fast track.”
Walton has a dynamic coaching style, is a firm believer in the 4-3 front, likes an aggressive approach and prefers press coverage. The Rams played very little press coverage last season, but that could change as young cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson grow and improve their technique.
And that’s one thing Walton is known for — teaching and improving technique.
“Coach Walton was very hands-on,” said former NFL cornerback Kelly Jennings, who played for Walton with the Miami Hurricanes. “He’s a technician to the core. I credit a lot of my technique stuff that I learned and used to him. He was very detailed.”
After five NFL seasons, with Seattle and one with Cincinnati, Jennings is working on a master’s degree in Jackson, Miss. Reminiscent of the leader at Carver High who tried to help his teammates make the right decisions, Walton did the same as secondary coach and then coordinator with the Hurricanes.
“One thing he was a stickler on was trying to teach us life, and what life was about,” Jennings said. “Life situations, and how to handle things. I guess how to grow up and deal with life circumstances.”
Jennings said Walton also talked to them about finances and investment. Granted, these were college athletes, but Walton’s 2005 secondary at Miami featured three future NFL players in Jennings, Brandon Meriweather and Kenny Phillips.
Just about everywhere Walton has been, he has helped groom future NFL players — from Michael Stone and Idrees Bashir at Memphis, to LaRon Landry at LSU to Jennings & Co. at Miami.
Now it’s Walton who to some degree must be groomed and grow into his new role as an NFL defensive coordinator.
Can he handle it?
“I think he will,” Jennings said. “I really do. I remember how he studied. Knew his stuff then (at Miami). And I think that alone will help him, being able to get that over to the (players) will be good. I think that will work out well for him.”