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Insider

LB Jonathan Walton a Southern sleeper

8/18/2012

Jonathan Walton (Daphne, Ala./Bayside Academy) kneeled down and tied a torn T-shirt around his head. He needed to prepare for his backbreaking summer morning: maybe paint a fence, pour cement or mow a lawn.

The 6-foot-1, 236-pound linebacker took on a part-time landscaping job in June so he could raise enough money for a plane ticket to Happy Valley. So, every weekday for three weeks, he woke up, tied that shirt around his perspiring head and went to work. Then he trained.

"I didn't mind it," said the unranked prospect, who reeled in a Penn State offer shortly before taking that job. "I wanted to get used to the heat for football anyway."

Walton's route to visiting Penn State, one of his top schools, was an unlikely one. Most coaches passed Bayside Academy, a picturesque campus a short walk from the bluffs, without a second thought. Only 60 students graduate every year, and the program — created about 10 years ago — never produced a single FBS athlete.

But neighboring coaches still dropped in with lingering curiosity about the boy who supposedly ran a 4.58 40 at a Mississippi State camp. Walton's high school coach said they didn't leave disappointed.

Troy assistant coach Randy Butler stopped by a practice two years ago. Forty-five seconds after he peered across Bayside's field, he turned to high school coach Phil Lazenby.

"He said, 'Coach, I don't care where I am later. That kid has a scholarship offer,' " Lazenby recalled.

The Alabama linebacker dripped with ability, no doubt, but his time on the field was limited. He tore his labrum as a sophomore and missed four games last year with a high ankle sprain — but still finished second on the team in tackles, despite splitting time at tailback and linebacker.

"He can run so well and he beats a lot of blocks just by getting there before the blocker, but he's still a physical kid," Lazenby said. "I literally sometimes have to tell him at practice, because we don't have a lot of big players, I tell him I don't want him laying into our running backs."

Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof — the only coach north of the Mason-Dixon Line to visit Walton — received a tip about the little-known recruit from an SEC coach and watched some film online. He phoned Walton's high school coach immediately afterward.

"Coach, I need to talk to this kid," Lazenby remembered him saying.

Roof visited the school later, and Walton received an offer soon thereafter. This was Linebacker U, Walton told himself, and he needed to visit. Now.

So, he worked, sweat and worked some more. He purchased a plane ticket with his own money and flew to Happy Valley with two coaches and a teammate to attend a football camp.

He toured some of the campus, stepped onto the lush grass of Beaver Stadium and researched the academics. He felt comfortable.

"I was about to commit to Penn State before the sanctions," Walton said. "But my mom wanted to make sure I really wanted to deal with that. So I want to see what other options I can take.

"I still like Penn State. I don't really have a favorite but, well, if you still want to call Penn State a favorite ... I like them a lot. I'm a linebacker, and it's Linebacker U."

Walton plans to take official visits to Penn State and Louisiana-Lafayette. He's not sure about his other officials, but he would like to decide on a school by the middle of this season.

He holds seven offers right now, from schools such as Troy and Arkansas State. And if he stays healthy, by the middle of the season, he might no longer be a secret in the South.