Kevin Walter: Dialed In

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday magazine on Aug. 31, 2009, for Houston's preseason game at home against the Minnesota Vikings.

There was a time in the recent past when opposing defenses worried only about the Texans' No. 80, Andre Johnson. They'd look over at No. 83 and say, "Who is he?"

Now, they ask, "Where is he?"

They don't want to get burned by Kevin Walter, too.

It's been a long and thrilling bungee jump of a career for Walter, the "other" Texans receiver along with Johnson, a three-time Pro Bowler. They've become one of the most potent 1-2 receiving tandems in the NFL.

In this Texans offense, being the second fiddle receiver isn't so bad.

Walter is no longer the unknown factor. He gets plenty of help because of Johnson's presence on the field, but he also has created a niche for himself through a tremendous work ethic.

"His mindset is that he wants to prove everyone wrong in this league and show that he can play and be a starter," wide receivers coach Larry Kirksey said. "The thing is, when you've got Andre on the other side, that allows Kevin to really flourish and do things and make some plays.

"Kevin has great hands and he's learned how to get off the bump at the line of scrimmage and get in and out of his breaks. That's a credit to Kevin, because he's always working on the little things."

Coach Gary Kubiak tells the story of discovering Walter while looking at tape of another Cincinnati player. Walter kept stealing the show. The Texans signed Walter away from the Bengals, and after a slow, quiet climb, he has developed into one of the most dangerous No. 2 receivers in the league.

Walter set a career high with 899 receiving yards last season. He also tied for ninth in the NFL with eight touchdown catches, which put him ahead of such big-name receivers as Hines Ward, Roddy White, Brandon Marshall, Steve Smith and Reggie Wayne.

When Kubiak talks about Walter now, there is admiration in his voice.

"He's has an identity with our offense," Kubiak said. "He's an overachieving, tough player that plays a skill position. He's a throwback. He's a personality within the group who does what we ask him to do. He's a guy that's always being talked about as being replaced, but he keeps beating everybody out doing his job.

"He's a helluva football player, a wonderful young man."

Two of Walter's touchdown catches came Oct. 26 against the Bengals. It showed how far he'd come from a special teams player in Cincinnati to a legitimate starter with the Texans. He even tried a touchdown dance after his second score.

"I don't dance much, but you've got to act like you've been there before," Walter said. "It was against my old team, it was my second touchdown of the game and Dave (Anderson) did his little Conan O'Brien dance before that, so I'm like, 'Let's have some fun.' Nobody knew what it was, and they still probably don't. It was a skateboard dance. I used to skateboard as a kid, so I said, 'Let's try it out.' It just came out."

Walter's vice grip hands have been more impressive than his dancing. He and Johnson were the most productive wide receiver tandem in the NFL last season with 2,474 combined receiving yards.

{QUOTE}"They are totally opposite players," Kubiak said. "Here's Andre, as totally skilled as there is in the business, and here's Kevin, every ounce, every catch he makes is on determination and hard work. He's a skill player, too; don't get me wrong. But both came up different ways, a first rounder and a seventh rounder. They are both guys that are hungry to be as good as they can be."

Skill levels might be different, but their work ethic is the same.

"Andre and I are very similar, we come out and work," Walter said. "We don't talk much about riff raff and all that. We come out like pros and try to get better each day and take it serious. I look up to 'Dre. The things he's done in this league and the things he's going to do in this league are remarkable. I just have to take little things from him and apply them to my game."

Johnson was the Texans' No. 1 draft pick in 2003. He was an instant starter and among the most talented wide receivers in the league. Walter came from more humble beginnings as a seventh-round pick of the New York Giants in the same year.

"We knew he was a great special teams player, but did we think he could turn into this kind of player?" Kubiak asked. "I think we were all a little surprised, but when you watch his work ethic, there's no telling what he might accomplish before his career is over."

Detractors have inspired Walter. He has worked hard on getting open downfield, despite not having the same speed as Johnson.

"That's why he's a starter," Kubiak said. "That stuff bothers him, and it motivates him every day. He's not going to run a 4.3 on anybody, but when it's third down and six, he'll run what he needs to get open."

Walter blossomed two seasons ago with a career-high 65 catches for 800 yards and five touchdowns. He kept up his production last season, and then some. He sees the offense getting better this year and he plans to improve too.

"As a pro, you need to work hard, prepare hard, and you need to get better," Walter said. "I'm trying to work hard and improve my game each year and take my game to a different level. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse in this business, and I'm trying to get better."

Now that defenses know they can't cover just Johnson, Walter thinks he's staying ahead of the pack.

"I'm a guy who works every day at my craft," Walter said. "Obviously, I feel Andre is the best receiver in this league, so he's going to get a lot of attention from defenses. That opens opportunities for myself and Owen (Daniels) and Steve (Slaton) and those other guys. We have to take advantage of that."

When sizing up a defense, it's nice to have a star like Johnson to confer with in a sideline chat.

"We communicate about everything, as far as football is concerned," Johnson said. "We try to help each other as much as we can. When he first got here and you watched him play, you could tell he was a hard worker. He just got better every year. He's proven himself that he's a starter on this football team.

"Last year, he talked a lot about how he wanted to go out and play well and add the run-after-the-catch to his game, and he did that."

Walter leaves nothing undone when it comes to his preparation. He gets two chiropractic sessions and two massages each week. Last year, he bought his own hyperbaric chamber.

"As a pro, your body is your work, so I decided to get a chamber," Walter said. "It's oxygen therapy, it rejuvenates your body. You sit in that, sleep in it a little bit and do some sessions in there for about two hours. Some guys think it's kind of weird, but it helps me get ready for Sunday."

The Texans ranked third in the NFL in yards last season but only 17th in scoring. Walter sees bigger numbers for the Texans' offense in 2009.

"We set the bar for ourselves last year," he said. "We told ourselves, 'Why can't we be number one?'We should be number one. We've got the offense, the tools, the players and everyone to do that. We've just got to compete against ourselves and not beat ourselves up out there and just go out and make plays. We're going to do that. We're going to be explosive. We're going to run the ball well, and it's going to be fun."

Walter hopes to have more fun in opponents' end zones. He's working on his dancing, and so are some of his playful teammates.

"You never know," Walter said. "As long as I get in that end zone, I might keep on dancing. I did it once last year. I know David Anderson and those guys, they've got a lot of things planned. So I'm sure I've got some things up my sleeve, too."

Any celebrating that Walter does, he'll do without Johnson.

"I can't help him, because I don't dance," Johnson said. "But that's just Kev. He's always trying to make up something crazy."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky., Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro teams.

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