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Flames Feature: Getting Serious
Editorial Note: This article was the feature story in the Flames Illustrated football game day program on Sept. 14, when Liberty defeated Morgan State, 38-10. Currently, Walt Aikens ranks second on Liberty's roster with 32 tackles, including 26 solo stops. He also has intercepted two passes and ranks second with five passes defended.
Walt Aikens is, first and foremost, a likeable guy.
In fact, it's almost impossible not to like him. It's clear from the moment you meet him that Aikens is a people person. With charisma to spare and an abundant sense of humor, the cornerback's warmth and comfort in his own skin regularly transcends formality.
During weekly post-press conference interviews, for example, the redshirt senior found himself at a loss to answer a question regarding his greatest on-field strength.
After a moment of hesitation, tugging absent-mindedly on his dreadlocks, a mischievous grin suddenly appeared on Aikens' face.
"I'm not sure," he replied, "So let's ask Kevin. Hey, Kevin!"
Aikens swiveled 180 degrees to find fellow cornerback Kevin Fogg – in the middle of his own interview – on the opposite side of the room.
"Listen, Kevin," he began, even as Fogg motioned in exasperation to the surprised journalist across from him. "Yeah, very sorry to interrupt, but what's my greatest on-field strength?"
"Man, I'm in the middle of-" Fogg stopped his protest short and rolled his eyes, realizing Aikens wasn't going anywhere. "Okay, fine. What was the question again?"
A few moments of loud, cross-room deliberation later, a consensus had been reached and even the interrupted reporter was laughing.
"We're very goofy," Fogg declared, chuckling. "When we're together we laugh non-stop, joke around and just have fun. We don't like to be too uptight and serious about everything, because when the time comes to hit the field, it's all business."
Serious business, in fact. When asked about his personal expectations for the remainder of the season, Aikens' mood shifted and his answer was immediate.
"To dominate," he responded without hesitation. A quick glance and it's plain to see he's not kidding around. The smile remains securely in place, but the so-called "happy-go-lucky" demeanor has been replaced by a definite intensity.
"Dominate," he repeats. "Simple as that."
For most players, the statement would be all bravado. Aikens, though, has the athletic chops to back it up.
"There's really one word that summarizes it: physical," said cornerbacks coach Marshall Roberts. "He is a physical, dominating presence on the boundary, and if teams test him more then he'll make even more plays."
Aikens led Liberty defensive backs with 39 solo and 12 assisted tackles on the 2012 season. Within the Big South Conference, he finished tied for the lead in forced fumbles (3) and fifth in passes defended (7), while returning four punts for 42 yards, earning himself a spot on the 2013 Preseason All-Big South team.
"I anticipate him having a phenomenal year," head coach Turner Gill stated. "It won't just be a year where he's simply out there, but I think he's going to make a big impact on our team in a lot of ways."
That versatility is one of the most significant aspects of Aikens' athletic ability. A member of the Liberty basketball and track teams in previous years, a quick YouTube search of his name turns up as many dunks as football highlights.
While some might see his dabbling in multiple sports as a weakness or lack of focus, Aikens and the Flames' coaching staff prefer to chalk it up as a strength. His speed in coverage, precision on hits and impressive vertical when leaping for interceptions are all skills he has fine-tuned on the field, court and track in equal measure.
"Hand-eye coordination, the ability to think on your feet and the ability to control the body in space – that encompasses all sports, football especially," Roberts confirmed. "A defensive back has to be a great athlete all-around, quite honestly, and that's what Walt does best – he's an athlete out there at the corner position."
Aikens credits his abilities in multiple sports to a remarkably athletic family (all three of his immediate family members were and are multi-sport athletes; and father Walter Aikens went on to play basketball for Queens University and professionally for seven years in Brazil), but he is quick to emphasize football as his personal athletic priority.
"It's not too often you get a chance to play three sports in college, so I had to take full advantage of the opportunities given to me, you know?" Aikens explained with a shrug. "But it's football season right now, and I'm not thinking about anything else right now. It's my main sport, it's my senior year and it's time to buckle down."
"There's no doubt that he's always been all-in," Gill reiterated. "He loves the game of football, and I see him as really improved in every facet of the game."
"Oh, I expect him to play at his fullest; I expect him to play really well," Roberts declared. He paused briefly, considering his words, then added, "I expect him to shut people down and be the dominant player that he can be."
It was an unintentional echo of Aikens' own plans for the season. Because while he may be likeable off the field, once he steps on it, he's all business.
"For the most part, I'm out here joking and having fun. I love being around people, love talking to new people and meeting everybody I can. I'm just trying to enjoy the college experience," Aikens grinned. "But on the field? That's where I get serious."
And that's just how Flames fans like it.
By Ryley Rush who is a Liberty University junior and is a freelance writer for Liberty Athletics