Tempers tend to flare every August during training camp two-a-days as players work in the summer heat to improve their physical condition and sharpen their technique. So, it was understandable when second-year player Delanie Walker experienced a bit of a meltdown in one of the sessions.
The 49ers had spent a sixth-round pick on the former wide receiver out of Central Missouri State in 2006, believing that the sure-handed wideout could one day be a threat as an NFL tight end. Charged with aiding Walker in that continual transition, tight ends coach Pete Hoener frequently berated his young pupil. It was one such morning where Walker seemingly couldn't do anything to please his coach when the converted tight end finally got fed up and reacted by chucking his helmet in frustration.
"It's all for the best and that's just part of football," Walker said about that camp incident. "Sometimes you get angry and you let your frustration take over. I knew Coach was just trying to help me. It wasn't that I was frustrated with him, I was frustrated with myself. I knew I was better than the way I was playing. He knew that too, and he was just trying to bring that out of me."
Showing resiliency and strong character, Walker hasn't allowed moments like that to discourage him. Instead, he took those harsh lessons from Hoener to heart in a continuous effort to improve his game, and after two seasons, his coach is pleased with the results.
"He really has made tremendous progress and in terms of making the transition from a receiver to a tight end," Hoener said. "He's really come along faster than I've seen most guys when it comes to a transition like that. He was already a promising player in the passing game, but his blocking came along very well. He's still got a long way to go, but I was very pleased with the way he worked and studied this season."
Walker played well and even started 10 games, racking up 21 receptions which ranked 5th on the team. He also got over the hump with his first touchdown catch against the Carolina Panthers.
"It's hard to explain how I felt after that catch," Walker said. "I don't know if you can really understand it until you experience it yourself, but I got that first touchdown and now I'm really hungry for more. Next year I have to get more than one."
That shouldn't be too lofty a goal for a player who creates constant mismatches. While Walker may play tight end, he still has the speed and soft hands of a receiver. Listed at 244 pounds, he usually provides too physical of a challenge for most defensive backs, a unique dynamic that Walker prides himself on.
"I can be the slot receiver, outside receiver, tight end or fullback," Walker said. "I feel that type of versatility is what I can offer the team. If you put a linebacker on me, it's a mismatch. If you put a defensive back on me, it's a mismatch. Most teams use a nickel package when I'm in the game and if we run the ball, they're short a linebacker. I think I can help the team out that way."
Walker has also helped the team out by returning kickoffs on occasion. To say that is a "rarity" among NFL tight ends would be a huge understatement. In 2007, Walker returned three kicks, including one for 30 yards. While those numbers may not pop off the charts, the mere fact that he has returned kicks shows how gifted the former Central Missouri State standout is with the ball in his hands.
"I hear that a lot," Walker said. "People say to me, 'You're a tight end returning kickoffs? That's crazy!' That goes back to me being able to do a lot of things. Maurice Hicks is a great running back and kick returner, but it just gives us a different look and another option with me back there. They know that I'm hard to tackle but I'm also capable of taking one to the house."
In fact, Walker first caught the attention of 49ers fans as a returner. It was a 2006 preseason game against the Raiders when the rookie tight end brought 49ers fans to their feet with a devastating stiff arm at the end of his return. The smaller player was clearly outmatched against Walker who had a full head of steam.
"The stiff arm started back in college," Walker said. "Because I was a receiver in college, I was bigger than most DBs. That stiff arm was just an instinct because my arm span was much longer than the guys who were covering me."
Unfortunately, Walker was limited for most of his rookie campaign after suffering a separated shoulder, an injury that has also sidelined his stiff arm.
"I didn't do it too much this year because I was still trying to strengthen my shoulder," said Walker. "I feel like it's 100 percent now so you need to look for that move next year because it will be coming back."
Fortunately, Walker remained mostly healthy this year and was able to take advantage of additional playing time in a season where injuries befell his fellow tight ends Vernon Davis and Billy Bajema.
"I have to thank the trainers for keeping my body feeling good after I had surgery on my shoulder in the off-season," Walker said. "The treatment and rehab they did with me in order to get me back on the field was terrific. I feel like I'm twice as strong now as compared to when I came in as a rookie. I tried to work hard in the weight room and the training room in order to try to stay injury free this year and I need to have that same kind of focus this off-season so I can come in and contribute next season."
After two seasons in the NFL, Walker knows he has plenty of work ahead of him before his transition to tight end is complete, but it's night and day compared to when the 49ers first drafted him.
"It's so much different," Walker said. "I feel like I'm smarter and I just know the game so much better. I know the defensive techniques and how to read the coverage better. I've also become a better blocker. I've gained a lot of experience since the start of my rookie season and that's started to pay off."
Walker will continue working on his blocking this off-season, and also plans to focus on becoming a better student of the game. While spending a significant amount of time training in Houston over the next few months, Walker said he will be lifting weights, watching film and studying in order to become "that elite player in the NFL."
"I accomplished all but one of my goals last season and that was to go to the playoffs which obviously didn't happen," said Walker. "I'm going to put that goal back on my paper for next year though. I will be setting the bar much higher going into next season. We will go to the playoffs next year."