Greg Gattuso has coached some prominent interior defensive linemen in his day, so when the UAlbany head football coach said Wednesday that redshirt junior Mazon Walker is among the very best at the position that he’s ever coached, it carries considerable weight.
Especially when Gattuso drew a direct line from Walker to one particular former player of his.
“The other guy I coached that he reminds me of,” Gattuso said Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters, “is the NFL [Defensive] Player of the Year the last three years.”
That “other guy?”
That would be Los Angeles Rams superstar Aaron Donald, whom Gattuso recruited and coached for a year at the University of Pittsburgh when he was the Panthers’ defensive line coach. Earlier this month, Donald collected his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, having previously won the honor back-to-back in 2017 and 2018.
Like the 6-foot-1, 284-pound Donald, Walker is undersized for his position at the top levels of the game — he’s listed at 5-foot-9 and 268 pounds — but plays the game at such a high speed that he leverages with his frame into becoming a wrecking ball to disrupt opposing offenses.
It’s a style of play that’s forced his teammates to take notice.
“The kid could be 300 pounds, he could be 245, he moves at one speed, and it’s 1,000 miles an hour,” redshirt junior linebacker Danny Damico said. “That man comes out of his stance quicker than I’ve ever seen someone come out of his stance. He’s one of the quickest interior D-linemen I’ve ever seen, and he’s thrived at what he’s done here at Albany.
“I can’t believe that he’s not talked about more.”
Comparisons like the one Gattuso made Wednesday could change that conversation quickly.
The affable Walker — Gattuso called him a “free spirit,” like other top linemen he’s coached — racked up 46 tackles (18 solo), 14 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2019 and took being mentioned in the same breath as Donald as a “huge compliment” from Gattuso.
“Hearing what he said,” Walker said, “it’s definitely a big pat on the back.”
Before Walker was compared to Donald, he and the rest his mates on the Great Danes’ defensive line got a chance to chat with the NFL’s premiere defender last April when Gattuso arranged a teleconference between Donald and his current players.
“It was a huge honor,” Walker said. “I couldn’t believe that he took the time to help out some people that he didn’t really know. . . . It was a blessing.”
Gattuso also compared Walker favorably to several other standout interior linemen he’s coached throughout his career, but the similarities between the redshirt junior and the NFL star are striking.
“He’s not big,” Gattuso said, “but he’s tough, fast and intelligent.”
With the graduation of 2019 second-team All-American Eli Mencer, who put up a program-record 14.5 sacks along with 24 tackles for loss and an FCS-leading five forced fumbles as a senior, Walker is the top returning player on the UAlbany defensive line from a statistical point and will be an anchor for the Great Danes as they open their season next Friday at New Hampshire.
His unique brand of havoc on the interior, playing alongside fellow veterans Ibn Foster, Anthony Lang and Roberto Roena, will be crucial in a defensive scheme that puts a lot of weight on the defensive line providing disruption in the opposing backfield.
“We feel good about our front,” Gattuso said. “They’ve got work to do, but they’ve got to generate [tackles for loss] and chaos in the backfield. That’s their job.”
While Gattuso said mentioning Walker’s name alongside Donald was warranted, he did want to make sure Walker “didn’t get a big head from hearing me say that.
Walker said that won’t be a problem.
“I still have to be me,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m just trying to be the best I can.”