June Jones has a long memory, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. As a college coach, he remembers watching his team get torched by a Temple quarterback.
That player, P.J. Walker, known as Phillip Walker in his final season with the Owls, is now doing the same thing to XFL opponents.
Jones is the head coach of the Houston Roughnecks, who at 4-0 is the only unbeaten team in the new eight-team league. Walker, an MVP candidate, has completed 92 of 146 passes (63%) for 987 yards, 12 touchdowns, and two interceptions for the Roughnecks.
Jones, 67, has had a long career, first as a player and then as a coach. He was a quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons and eventually became the team’s head coach from 1994 to ’96. Jones has built a reputation for developing quarterbacks. While coaching at Southern Methodist University in 2013, he faced Walker, who made a memorable first impression.
Walker was a freshman, and the teams were in an old-fashioned shootout. Temple tied the score at 42 when Walker hit Kenny Harper on a 4-yard scoring pass with 11 minutes, 26 seconds left, but then host SMU scored 17 straight points to pull away for a 59-49 victory.
Walker completed 26 of 37 passes for 293 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. He rushed 14 times for 92 yards and a 6-yard score.
“What P.J. has done for us has not surprised me," Jones said by phone. "It has surprised a lot of people, but I remember watching him closely when as an 18-year-old freshman, he played as well as you are going to see any first-year quarterback. I followed his career after that.”
Walker, a 2016 Temple graduate, owns every major career passing record for the Owls, including yards (10,669) and touchdown passes (74). In his junior year, Temple won the East Division of the American Athletic Conference, and as a senior, Walker led the Owls to the overall AAC championship.
Like his coach, Walker isn’t surprised by his success.
“Absolutely not,” Walker said by phone. “I have been preparing for this throughout my career, and now I have made the most of the opportunity.”
Walker beat out Connor Cook, a former Michigan State star, for the Roughnecks’ quarterback job. Cook was a fourth-round draft choice of the Oakland Raiders in 2016. He appeared in one regular-season game and one playoff game for the Raiders that year.
Walker wasn’t drafted out of Temple, but the Indianapolis Colts signed him, and he was on the practice squad for two seasons. He was released before last season. Walker said he had a few tryouts with NFL teams, but didn’t playlast year.
“I was on my couch watching a lot of football,” he said.
One of the keys for the XFL is developing quarterbacks, because stars at that position bring more attention to the league.
“When I became commissioner, one of our strategies was to identify [NFL] practice-squad quarterbacks,” XFL commissioner and CEO Oliver Luck said by phone.
Luck knows a little about the position. He was a star quarterback at West Virginia and spent four years in the NFL with the former Houston Oilers. But he is known more for being the father of Andrew Luck, the former four-time Pro Bowl quarterback of the Colts, who retired before last season.
Luck said he was well aware of Walker and received a strong recommendation from his son.
“He said, ‘Dad, this kid can play. He is smart and has great leadership skills,' ’’ Luck recalled.
Walker has been a major selling point for the league, Luck said. “He is arguably one of the most dynamic players and has been very consistent the first four weeks.” .
Listed at 5-foot-11 and 214 pounds, Walker makes up for his lack of size with his intelligence, athletic ability, and mobility, often buying himself time to throw.
“He is a real leader and makes things happen when things break down," Jones said, "and that is what I remembered him doing at Temple.”
Walker is also becoming one of the faces of the league. The Roughnecks’ media relations department said he has been on a busy interview schedule, which seems to expand each week.
Former Temple tight end Colin Thompson, who plays for the Tampa Bay Vipers, is a popular interview request because of his past affiliation with Walker.
“The whole league knows I went to Temple, and they come to me every week asking questions about him,” Thompson said. “I am so happy for his success.”
The XFL season will end April 26. Luck says XFL players are under one-year contracts, so Walker will be a free agent after that.
Walker, while enjoying himself at Houston, is looking forward to returning to the NFL, and not just on a practice squad.
“That is the end goal,” Walker said. “I am taking it one day at a time, and it will come eventually.”
He said he enjoys every day of competing and is happy that Temple has received publicity because of his success.