By Luke Strickland – Clayton Daily News
RIVERDALE — Last season, Riverdale High’s defense allowed 24 points per game en route to a 5-5 record. The Raiders had talent on the defensive side of the ball, but were hurt by inexperience in important games.
A bright spot on last year’s defensive unit was the emergence of Dante Walker. As a freshman, Walker established himself as one of the top defensive players in the county, earning Second Team All-Region 4-AAAA honors in a region loaded with defensive talent.
Local coaches aren’t the only people to notice Walker’s play last season. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound defensive lineman received an offer from Mississippi State over the summer.
“It was amazing,” Walker said. “I have to stay humble and hungry.”
Fortunately for Walker, elite athletic ability is in his blood. Not only did his brother, former Riverdale player Isiah Gilliard, earn a football scholarship out of high school, his mother also played Division I basketball at Florida State.
Knowing Walker’s family background, head coach Terry Herrod said the talented youngster still exceeded his own expectations.
“I knew he had the talent and the pedigree, but he was really quiet coming in,” said Herrod. “Coaches at Riverdale Middle told me ‘look you have a lot of guys coming over, but Dante is the best.’ When we got into the season, he started showing game in and game out how good he was.”
Despite his size and strength, the transition to high school ball wasn’t easy for Walker. He said the speed of the game in particular was an aspect he needed time to adjust to.
“When I came to high school football I knew I would have to compete to get better and beat out people in front of me,” he said. “I just wanted to be the best on the field. It was challenging to keep up.”
Although Riverdale’s defense struggled at times, Walker said he improved significantly just by being on the field. He cited the Jonesboro game, in which the Raiders pushed the eventual Region 4-AAAA champions to the brink, as an important point in his early career.
“We need to go hard every play and play our assignments well,” said Walker. “The Jonesboro game, we killed it, I thought.”
With Walker leading the way, Herrod said he expects Riverdale’s defense to be vastly improved in 2016.
“A lot of people lost sight of the fact that we started three freshmen on defense last year,” Herrod said back in May. “We feel pretty good about the guys we have on that side of the ball. If anything, we want to improve on being disciplined and doing things the right way. We don’t want to make bad plays in terms of foolish penalties. I think this group of kids talent-wise will be OK. Our issues won’t be talent.”
In terms of talent, Walker is an impressive piece to build around. Herrod said he’s been impressed with Walker’s versatility and loves the fact he can line him up anywhere on the defensive line and expect a mismatch.
Walker, a quiet, humble kid by nature, knows he’s talented. Still, he said he wants to work on slowing down to make sure he doesn’t overrun the ball as much this season.
After realignment occurred during the offseason, Riverdale found itself in a winnable region. The Raiders, who are loaded with offensive talent, will face only one playoff team from 2015 in Region 3-AAAAA – Starr’s Mill.
But to break a three-year postseason absence, Riverdale must improve defensively. Walker will play an important role in that challenge, and if his opening act is any indication, the talented youngster is just scratching the surface of his potential.
“He has a chance to be pretty special. As a freshman to make second team All-Region it shows how much respect the coaches in the region have in a region with a lot of good defense players,” said Herrod. “He has a chance, if he can do what he’s supposed to do in the classroom, he has a chance to do the things [former Raider and current Duke Blue Devil] Chidi [Okonya] was able to do in terms of recruiting and even on a bigger level than that.”
Riverdale kicks off the 2016 season August 19 against North Clayton.