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Walker returns to Peach State

The last night Darius Walker played football in Georgia was a pretty memorable one.

It was Dec. 20, 2003. All Walker did that night was rush for 213 yards on 34 carries in leading the Buford Wolves to their third straight state championship and 45th consecutive win. And in the process he just happened to break Herschel Walker's all-time state record with his 46th rushing touchdown of the season.

Now he's back in his home state, as the starting running back for Notre Dame, and is hoping to put on a show for his hometown fans on Saturday night when the No. 2 Fighting Irish take on Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

If all goes well he might even have a night like the one he experienced in December 2003.

"I remember the state championship my senior year like it happened last week," said Walker with a laugh. "Wow. It really does not seem that long ago. It really doesn't ... You always hear people in school saying that it goes by really fast, and you think, 'Nah, they're just playing around. They're not telling the truth.' But it really does go fast ... and I'm excited to get a chance to come home."

It's been two years since Walker first stepped foot on the Notre Dame campus as a hotshot freshman running back. In those 24 months, he's had himself quite a ride.

From his national coming-out party against Michigan in the second game of his freshman season, to the disappointing six losses the Irish suffered that year, to the firing of the man that recruited him (Tyrone Willingham), to the hiring of offensive mastermind Charlie Weis, to the Fiesta Bowl berth he helped the Fighting Irish earn last year with a career-high 186 yards against Stanford in the regular season finale, Walker has seen plenty in his two short years on campus.

Now his old friends from high school will get a chance to see him in person.

Well, some of them anyway.

"I have 30-something (tickets) right now," Walker said, "but I'm needing more. If I could have enough, I think I could fill up Georgia Tech's stadium by myself."

Even the ones who won't be able to make it down to Grant Field will still be pulling for 2003 Daily Post Player of the Year, and they will be expecting Walker to do what Walker typically does.

"I'm sure he'll do well on Saturday," said Buford head coach Jess Simpson, who was the defensive coordinator for the Wolves in 2003. "He always plays great in big games and coming back to Atlanta, I'm sure he'll be excited. I know he'll have a lot of people in Buford rooting for him."

If he plays like he has the last two years, they'll have plenty to root for.

In his first season in South Bend, Walker rushed for a Notre Dame freshman record 786 yards on 185 carries.

He then followed that up with a tremendous sophomore campaign, rushing for 1,196 yards (including seven 100-yard games) and nine touchdowns and also setting a Fighting Irish record for running backs with 43 catches.

In two years Walker is already 13th on the Notre Dame career rushing list, with 1,982 yards, and if he stays healthy has a legitimate shot at breaking the school's all-time yardage record of 4,318, held by Autry Denson.

"I would say his No. 1 attribute is that he is very gifted at reading fronts," Weis said. "He is one of those guys who sees where the holes are. He has great peripheral vision and he can usually get the ball back to that spot."

Weis continued: "Another thing that I like about Darius is the things he perceives as weaknesses, he will work on a lot. For example: blitz pickup. Last year at this time, I didn't know if he would pick up the blitz or not. This year I have total confidence he will pick up the blitz."

Weis isn't the only head coach in Saturday night's game who has positive things to say about the former Buford star.

"All the great runners have that vision and knowledge," said Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey, who recruited Walker out of high school. "It's like the point guard knows where the other nine players on the basketball court are. A great tailback knows the blocking angles, who's on who, where the creases are going to be and tries to set things up to get there. So it's vision and knowledge, and I think he does a good job with both of those."

Yet despite Walker's remarkable two-year numbers, he isn't the biggest star on the Notre Dame offense. Or even the second biggest. Quarterback Brady Quinn is the early-season favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and wide receiver Jeff Samardzija is coming off a record-breaking, All-American year in 2005.

Some would say Walker is overshadowed by Quinn, Samardzija and even safety Tom Zbikowski on the Notre Dame team. But Walker doesn't see it that way.

"I definitely don't feel like that," he said. "It just really shows you how dynamic our offense is. We have a 3,000 yard passer, an All-American receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher - so who do you try to stop?

"I've never been on a team with this much talent."

And that's saying something. Because Walker was part of a high school team that is arguably one of the best ones in state history, and in his four years at Buford he lost a grand total of two games - both of which were his freshman year to Commerce - and they were six years ago.

So it's been a long time since Walker has tasted defeat on Georgia soil.

"Coming from where I come from," he said. "I'm not used to losing at all."

Two and a half years ago Notre Dame beat Georgia Tech, and about 60 other schools, for Walker's collegiate football services. On Saturday night, Walker is going to try to disappoint the Yellow Jacket fans yet again.

"Naturally some people will be upset with somebody from the state playing against a hometown team," Walker said. "Let's see if I have some loyal fans who want to see me do well."