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Johnny Walker Jr. is exactly what the doctor ordered for Missouri’s defense

Missouri searched far and wide to replace its departing defensive end production. The player they were looking for was here all along.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Kansas State at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What if the Tigers don’t find an answer to their defensive end problem? This was a question I pondered frequently during the offseason. The defense was (mostly) set. More than 80 percent of the production was returning.

And then there was defensive end.

The Tigers lost more than 1,500 defensive end snaps from last season when Isaiah McGuire (515), Trajan Jeffcoat (413), DJ Coleman (371), Arden Walker (152) and Tyrone Hopper (128) walked out the door either due to graduation or transfers. Replacing that kind of production in one offseason is an incredibly difficult task to accomplish. Mizzou’s coaching staff attempted to cover its bases by adding Nyles Gaddy, Joe Moore and Austin Firestone via the transfer portal. They knew they had positional flexibility with Darius Robinson, and they also had a gentleman by the name of Johnny Walker Jr. waiting in the wings.

I’m not sure the plan would have worked if not for Walker.

The former 3-star recruit from Tampa wasn’t someone who arrived on campus with a ton of fanfare. He was a 6-foot-3, 200-pound linebacker who 247Sports rated as the 175th-best player in the state of Florida. He decommitted from Washington State late in the process and was a January addition to the Tigers’ 2020 class.

It took some time before Walker really found his footing at Mizzou. He redshirted and didn’t see the field as a true freshman. He finished with fewer than 130 snaps as a redshirt freshman in 2021, mostly coming early in the season. Last year, he rarely saw action unless the game was already out of hand.

Moral of the story, this was not a player the coaching staff showed a ton of faith in prior to this season. He showed some flashes, but that was mostly late in games that were already determined or in games against lower-level competition. Counting on Walker as a significant piece of Missouri’s defensive end rotation for 2023 seemed like a lofty goal.

So much for that.

Walker has blown by every reasonable expectation for what he could be in 2023. His 220 snaps are the most by any SEC defensive lineman through the first four games of the season, per Pro Football Focus. His four sacks are tied for third in the conference. His nine quarterback hurries are tied for fifth. His 16 defensive stops are the most among SEC defensive linemen (PFF describes a ‘stop’ further as an offensive gain on first down that is kept to less than 40 percent of the line to gain, less than 50 percent of the line to gain on second down and any third- or fourth-down play kept without a first down or touchdown). His 12.8 percent pass rush win rate is fifth in the conference among defensive linemen with at least 75 pass rush snaps this season.

That’s a lot of numbers to say this: Walker has been one of the most productive defensive ends in the SEC this season. He’s playing an even higher percentage of the snaps this year than McGuire played a year ago. Walker has actually been more productive within those snaps through four games this year than McGuire was through four games last season.

To say this was unexpected would be quite an understatement. Walker came out of nowhere to be one of Missouri’s best defensive players this season. It couldn’t have come at a better time, and it couldn’t have come at a more critical position.

Missouri spent the entire offseason looking for answers to solve its defensive end problem. It looks like the answer was inside the locker room the whole time.