Rijo Walker insists his head wasn't spinning nearly as much as it could've been when Virginia's coaches approached him during game-week practices for last year's season-opener against William and Mary and asked him to switch positions.
This wasn't just a "can you help us out this week?" kind of request. The coaches were talking about a permanent move from cornerback to safety.
Walker, a rising junior who graduated from Bethel High, made the shift from cornerback, where he'd practiced almost exclusively for a year, to safety. He learned what he could working behind three-year starting free safety Corey Mosley, but Walker's real education begins this spring.
"I mean, really, this is the first year he gets to go through safety training," said U.Va. special teams coordinator and safeties coach Anthony Poindexter on Friday said on Friday. "He really didn't get trained at safety over the year. He just had to catch it on the run. Now, we're training him from ground level. He's doing pretty well in these first three days."
With just three days of spring practice under his belt, Walker sits atop U.Va.'s depth chart at free safety. He's playing another would-be first-year starter in sophomore Anthony Harris, who is in line to replace strong safety Rodney McLeod, another three-year starter.
Unlike the cornerback position, which are spots where U.Va. is desperately trying to develop some depth at this spring, there's plenty of competition at the safety positions.
"If you're a safety on this team, you're licking your chops right now," Walker said. "You know there's two spots open that were vacated last year. I just know that you have to set an ultimate goal for yourself. Starting, and being a constant starter, is the ultimate goal."
Behind the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Walker at free safety, 6-5 Kameron Mack and 6-3 Pablo Alvarez — both sophomores — are getting reps. Harris is being backed up by redshirt freshmen Mason Thomas and Kyrrel Latimer.
Though he may not be as physically gifted as his competition at the position, Walker has at least a little more of something the other names at free safety can't boast. While he only started two games last season against North Carolina and Southern Mississippi at safety, he's seen plenty of game action on special teams, and some as a reserve at cornerback, in the nickel package and at safety.
"For (Walker) personally, he should feel like he has more confidence," Poindexter said. "He's been around here a year longer than any of the rest of the guys. He's had a taste of being in the game. He's had a taste of being at corner, which in my mind is a little bit more nerve-racking than being a safety in a game. He's had some of those pressures on him."
While Poindexter said he has told all of the safeties that there are no true starters right now, he acknowledges Walker's versatility is an asset. U.Va. coach Mike London said there's still a chance Walker could get some looks at cornerback this spring.
"He knows the corner part of it, so we want to give him the opportunities with the safety part of it to get the calls and his responsibilities as a safety," London said. "As we get into spring practice here a little more, maybe next week or something, because he's so versatile we might give him some shots at corner."
As far as Mosley and McLeod are concerned, Walker refers to them as the "gurus." Walker leaned on them last season, sponging up information in film sessions and on the field in practice.
While the technique portion of the safety position doesn't have to be as precise as when Walker played cornerback, there's a greater responsibility at safety to make reads and call out instructions and alerts to defensive players. The ability to make those reads and calls are what will separate him from the pack at safety, and Walker knows it.
"I learned the defense as a corner," Walker said. "They teach us to know the whole defense, so moving to safety wasn't too bad, since I knew the basics.
"I've been around, but I know there's a long road ahead. I'm looking forward to everything that's going to be thrown at me in the future."