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At left tackle: Walker is the 1

The Gator slips and the Bucs gladly trade up for Kenyatta Walker, saying he is one of the best in a decade.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2001


photo
[Times photo: AP photo]
Kenyatta Walker is similar to Paul Gruber, according to Bucs offensive line coach Christ Foerster.
TAMPA -- Fingers crossed, holding a four-leaf clover and wearing a horseshoe on their rabbit's foot, the Bucs could not have been luckier in the NFL Draft on Saturday.

Their make-a-wish pick when the day started was Florida tackle Kenyatta Walker.

Not only was he one of the best players available, he would fill the Bucs biggest hole.

But Walker would have to step on a banana peel left on an ice rink to slip far enough for Tampa Bay, which entered the day picking 21st overall.

So the Bucs met him halfway.

Completing perhaps one of the most opportunistic off-seasons in team history, the Bucs traded their first- and second round picks to the Bills to move up seven spots and select Walker 14th overall.

The 6-foot-41/2, 313-pound Walker, who played right tackle at Florida, will switch to left tackle and is projected to be their opening day starter in Dallas on Sept. 9.

More importantly, he could start at left tackle for the next decade.

"In 10 years of evaluating offensive linemen, this is one of the best guys I've ever done," said Bucs offensive line coach Chris Foerster. "He is a tremendous football player.

"He's one of those guys like a (Paul) Gruber. That's a guy who's a 10-year player at the toughest position to play on the offensive line. He's going to do it on a high level, I think. I think he's one of those guys."

The drafting of Walker means the Bucs will not attempt to sign Dolphins free agent Richmond Webb, general manager Rich McKay said.

With their third-round pick, the Bucs added Akron defensive back Dwight Smith, who also returns kickoffs.

"The thing I really liked was his ball skills, which goes along with him being a returner and being used to using his hands," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "I think he's going to get a lot of interceptions."

But any choice would be gravy for the Bucs after taking Walker.

And it was so easy, really.

Walker was projected as a top 10 draft pick and arguably was the best tackle. But once the Bengals chose Missouri defensive end Justin Smith fourth overall, the Bucs figured they had a chance.

McKay started working the phones, calling San Francisco vice president Bill Walsh to ask if the 49ers would entertain trading the ninth pick.

But the Niners were trading up two spots with Seattle, so McKay kept working the phones, dialing Carolina, St. Louis and Jacksonville before Buffalo took the deal.

"Most people thought Cincinnati would take an offensive tackle. We felt he had a chance to go there," Dungy said. "When they didn't take him, in between there were seven or eight teams that weren't going to take him because they have left tackles or more pressing needs. You worry that people are thinking the same things you do. Here's a good player, should we move up?"

Walker, who was invited by the NFL to attend the draft in New York, was surprised but delighted to be drafted by Tampa Bay, which plays just 140 miles south of where the redshirt junior starred as a second-team All-American.

"I never thought it in a million years," Walker said. "It never crossed my mind, but I'm very excited. I'm happy to be a Buccaneer, playing for a Super Bowl-contending team. I think things happen for a reason and it shows a lot that they came and got me. I'm really excited, man."

But Walker's enthusiasm did not top the Bucs', who were likely to wind up with Arizona State tight end Todd Heap if they remained at 21.

[Times photo: Toni Sandys]
General manager Rich McKay, left, and coach Tony Dungy discuss the Bucs' options.

"If we didn't like the receivers, we probably would've considered the tight ends or moved down," Dungy said.

Walker's next move will be from right to left tackle. But after playing in a passing-dominated offense at Florida, he is skilled in pass protection.

George Hegamin, who backed up veteran Pete Pierson at left tackle, will be a reserve on the right side behind Jerry Wunsch.

"If they move me to center right now, I'd be comfortable, honestly," Walker said. "I'm just ready to play and ready to learn my plays, get a little dirty and have a good year.

"There's a lot of pressure coming to Tampa. There's a lot of expectations and I just feel I'm ready."

Walker is the first offensive lineman taken in the first round by the Bucs since Charles McRae in '91. Foerster said Walker will benefit from playing next to 12-time Pro Bowl guard Randall McDaniel.

"There's only one or two guys athletically that can handle the open end with pass rushers like Simeon Rice," Foerster said. "When you get up there with a silent count, you've got to have athleticism and footwork to keep up with these guys. And there's just not a lot of big, 320-pound guys who can do that. That's what separates him from (Michigan tackle) Jeff Backus. Jeff doesn't have that foot speed that Kenyatta has. "We've got a top pick at left tackle, a perennial Pro Bowler (McDaniel) at left guard, a Pro Bowler (Jeff Christy) at center, we've got a top pick from last year (Cosey Coleman) at right guard and a top of the second-round pick (Jerry Wunsch) at right tackle. You put it together and say, "They ought to be pretty good up front."

With any luck at all.

Bucs bios

Kenyatta Walker -- 14th pick overall

Dwight Smith -- 84th pick overall

-- Compiled by Pete Young.

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