Tyrone Walker smiles and dips his head sheepishly, not wanting to take credit for the accolades that come along with four years of rewriting the Illinois State record book.
Nate Palmer doesn’t have the same complex.
A Redbird teammate with Walker for two of those years, Palmer had a sideline view for all of Walker’s record-breaking feats: career receptions (250), receiving yards (3,565), receiving touchdowns (32) and 100-yard receiving games (16).
Now rookies with the Green Bay Packers, the 6-foot-2, 248-pound linebacker isn’t afraid to tell you how good the 5-foot-10, 191-pound receiver is.
“He has some of the best hands I’ve probably ever seen,” said Palmer of Walker, who led the Packers with five catches for 41 yards in Friday’s 17-0 preseason loss to Arizona. “He’s a competitor with his hands, too. I’ve seen him get tackled, DB has his hand on the ball and he’ll catch it with one hand. That’s one thing he really prides himself on is hand strength and things of that nature.”
One day after a game littered with episodes of offensive ineptitude, Packers coach Mike McCarthy singled out Walker again as a positive during his day-after news conference on Saturday afternoon.
Walker, who attended May’s rookie orientation on tryout before being extended a contract, has caught nearly every pass that’s come his way during the first two weeks of training camp to put his name into the conversation for a roster spot.
When yards were coming at a premium on Friday against the Cardinals, Walker found ways to make himself available to his quarterbacks, including a 22-yard pass across the middle from Graham Harrell on third-and-6 near the end of the first quarter.
“He’s another one I would say was one of our top performers after grading the tape,” said McCarthy moments after crediting offensive lineman Don Barclay. “I really think he’s been doing it all camp. He’s very instinctive, very athletic, has a pretty good understanding of what we’re doing on offense. He really picked it up quickly, you could see that right away. Was given some opportunities. He’s a solid route runner and he seems to have a pretty good connection with all of our quarterbacks.”
During his first snap and operating out of the slot, Walker actually found some open space in the end zone on a third-and-goal from the Cardinals’ 2-yard line but Aaron Rodgers went the other way on an incomplete pass to tight Jermichael Finley.
Rodgers has singled out Walker repeatedly this offseason for being one of the receivers who has stepped up following the departure of Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, but didn’t notice he was in for that particular play.
“I already talked to ‘12’ about it, I was open,” said Walker with a smile. “He even asked him, ‘You were in?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I was in.’ On the one he threw to Jermichael, I was open. I was hungry for that one. My first ever snap, my eyes got big – the moment might have been too big for me if he came to me.”
Meanwhile, Walker has talked with fellow receiver Jarrett Boykin, who made the roster a year ago the same exact way Walker is trying to now – from tryout player to active roster.
To get there, he’ll need to rely on, his greatest strength, a catalyst to all those records that Palmer sums up in three short, but emphatic, words when asked what Walker can do for an NFL team.
“Catch the ball,” Palmer said.