Phillip Walker, better known by his nickname PJ, has taken the football world by storm. Seemingly out of nowhere the soon to be 25 years old has risen from relative unknown to casual fans to the face of a budding league. But to me and those who know Walker better, this is no surprise. From lightly recruited to undrafted Walker’s journey has been one that most quarterbacks of similar stature and labels face. Yet here is. How he got here?
Walker’s football journey starts in his hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey where he starred at Elizabeth High School. As a four-year starter, Walker and fellow future Temple standout Jahad Thomas led Elizabeth High to the 2012 state championship. That same year he was named Newark-Star Ledger Offensive Player of the Year. As a junior, he was one of the states most accurate passers completing 63.5 percent for 2,168 yards and 18 touchdowns including a stellar performance in the NJSIAA sectional final where he carved up Piscataway for 257 yards and three touchdowns through the air while rushing for 199 and one touchdown on the ground.
Despite these numbers, the generously listed 6’1 dual-threat quarterback flew under the radar earning a two-star rating from Rivals. As mentioned earlier he and fellow teammate Thomas signed with the Owls and first-year head coach Matt Rhule despite Walker having offers from Connecticut, East Carolina, James Madison, Massachusetts, Rutgers, and Toledo.
Walker began his freshman season number two on the depth chart behind starter Connor Reilly and was lackluster in his debut against Fordham. He would make the most of his next opportunity against Louisville where in a little over a half he threw for 182 yards on 10-of-19 passing. The following week he would make his first career start on the road against Cincinnati during a primetime Friday night matchup on ESPN. Undeterred he would throw for 200 yards with two touchdowns to one interception while rushing for 31 yards.
If there were any doubts about what he was capable of it was put to rest the next two games. He led Temple to their first win of the season in a 33-14 over Army on homecoming. The following week against SMU on the road in a 59-49 loss he first jumped on my radar. Against his future coach June Jones Walker threw for 293 yards and added another 92 on the ground scoring a total of five touchdowns. As an avid Jones fan dating back to his 2007 Colt Brennan led Hawaii team I couldn’t help but take notice of his numbers so I did some digging and fell in love.
See back in middle school when I first started becoming a football junkie my good friend (shoutout to my man Eddie) and I had a fascination with undersized quarterbacks. Todd Reising at Kansas, Cody Hawkins at Colorado, Chase Daniel at Missouri, Dwight Dasher at Middle Tennessee State, Chris Leak at Florida, Jeremiah Masoli at Oregon and later Ole Miss. My personal favorite Rakeem Cato at Marshall. The point is Walker was added to that group. I was always impressed by their ability to defy the odds and post gaudy numbers while winning.
Unfortunately for Walker that didn’t happen much the rest of his freshman season as the Owls finished 2-10. For his part, Walker entrenched himself as the starter for years to come throwing for 2,084 yards, tied for fourth-best in school history, and 20 touchdowns two off of Brian Broomell’s 1979 school record of 22. As a sophomore, he led Temple to six wins including a 37-7 thrashing of SEC foe Vanderbilt giving Temple their first win over an SEC team since 1938. While the wins and yardage (2,317) rose his touchdown-to-interception ratio dipped to just 13 touchdowns to 15 interceptions while adding 324 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
However, his junior year is where things started to turn around. For starters, he was the only offensive player and one of three to start every game. Secondly, he led a six-game increase in the win column as the Owls went 12-2 with an American Athletic Conference championship game birth ( lost 24-13 to Houston). Started the season with dominating win over instate foe Penn State 27-10 for the first time since 1941. Walker would have his Owls undefeated sitting at number 21 in the polls when they faced fellow undefeated 9th ranked Notre Dame on ABC primetime falling 24-20 in a classic. On the year he finished with 3,179 yards of total offense, a school record, with 2,972 of it coming through the air for another school record. Became just the second quarterback in school history to throw for 2,000 yards three times and set the school record for both attempts and completions.
After a 3-3 start to his senior campaign, Walker guided the Owls to seven straight wins including the programs’ first AAC championship with a 34-10 win over Navy. He tied yet another school record with 445 passing yards and 36 completions while setting a record with 59 attempts in a 34-27 loss to Memphis, the only conference loss all season. Departed as the leader in attempts, completions, yards, touchdown passes and total offense while becoming the first quarterback to lead his team to multiple bowls.
Measuring in at his pro day at 5’11 214-pounds with 4.7 speed didn’t make him an elite prospect. NFLDraftScout.com had him as their 32nd best quarterback. I thought for sure given the recent success of smaller QB’s Walker would hear his name called in the sixth or seventh round. No dice as he went undrafted. He received his shot with the Indianapolis Colts where he made their practice squad for the 2017 season. He spent the majority of the 2018 season on the practice squad as well before being released from the practice squad for the final time in 2019. While he had strong preseason outings with more and more teams carrying just two active QB’s on a roster with Andrew Luck and budding Jacoby Brissett made that task difficult. Walker would later give both Luck and Brissett credit for his early XFL success in an ESPN story by Sarah Barshop.
“Just to see those guys and the way they work every day…It just showed me how to be a professional, showed me that this business is really legit and you need to be on your P’s and Q’s every day.”
Shortly after getting cut he would sign with the XFL landing with the Houston Roughnecks led by Jones.
“I was sold because I watched him as an 18-year-old freshman at Temple,” Jones said in the ESPN story. “And that’s when I knew he was going to be a good player.”
Walker entered camp as the presumed backup behind former Michigan State standout and then Oakland Raiders QB Connor Cook. Much like at Temple, this time faster, Walker would win the starting job days before the season opener and hasn’t looked back. As of this writing Walker has not only mastered Jones Run ‘N’ Shoot offense but has thrived in it leading Houston to a 3-0 start, the only undefeated team left, throwing for a league-leading 748 yards with a whopping 10 touchdowns to just one interception. He has not only surpassed expectations but has overtaken bigger names such as Landry Jones and Cardale Jones, both early faces of the league, to become THE FACE of the league.
At this rate, the early season MVP will have his second chance at an NFL career *cough cough Steelers cough cough*. As history shows Walker will make the most of it.
“That’s the goal you know? That’s the mindset,” Walker said in the ESPN article. “So for me, it’s just taking one day at a time and, you know, not looking down a lot. Just taking it one day and, you know, whatever happens, happens at the end of the season.”