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Q & A: Prized DL Walter Nolen addresses his recruitment, Tennessee’s resurgence and more during first day at Powell


POWELL, Tenn. — On the press box at Powell High School’s football stadium, there is a black sign that reads, “WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE.”

Those four words pay homage to the famous Guns N’ Roses song, which is played when the Panthers shoot out from their entry ramp under the bleachers and onto the turf as one of the premier teams in Tennessee’s Class 5A.

The phrase is also an ode to Powell’s raucous environment on Friday nights in the fall.

But on July 26th, 2021, the famous lyrics took on an even deeper meaning for the school on West Emory Road.

When the Class of 2022’s top defensive lineman, Walter Nolen, used his red Crocs to pad onto the Panthers’ turf on Monday morning, he was greeted by a sign that welcomed him not only to Powell’s jungle, but to the metaphorical jungle he helped to create.

In a transfer move that was made official on Sunday, the former St. Benedict at Auburndale standout has put the Panthers — which already boast SEC-level talent — in a firm driver’s seat for their first ever state championship.

Nolen’s move from Memphis to north Knoxville has also sent shockwaves through his own recruitment, as he will play his senior year of high school football at a stadium that’s just 19 minutes from a Tennessee program that’s snuck back into his sights.

After not being in his top eight choices, the Vols are back in the mix as one of Nolen’s top five teams.

It’s worth noting that the Vols have offered Nolen’s younger brothers, Warren and Waylon, and Josh Heupel has also been in hot pursuit of two of the Nolen boys’ new teammates: Powell wide receivers Ayden Greene and Adarius Redmond.

Now, with his final prep year looming and plenty of questions abounding, Nolen addressed his recruitment, Tennessee relationships and more with Sports Illustrated’s Volunteer Country.

The full Q & A is listed below.

1. What helped Tennessee climb back into your top schools?

“Just talking to them a little bit more. Like, from the last time I cut it down to a top eight, just then stepping it up and talking to me a little bit more, then being able to come out and see them a little bit more.”

2. How beneficial were those unofficial visits you took last month? What did you enjoy about those?

“I should really come back and do an official, like to see everything in-depth. I liked the culture I saw around (Tennessee), like you can see that everybody means well and they mean to do you well there.”

3. What was your impression of Coach Rodney Garner when you finally got to meet him in person?

“It was cool. The way he talked, it fit the way everybody described him. Just a matter of time… you can see where he wants you to go, and how he’s going to get you there. He just lays it out in front of you.”

4. What specifics did Garner use in his approach that you liked, when you mention laying things out?

“The way he works his guys at practice… with his hands-on (approach), being able to explain things so I can see it a bit more.”

5. What are your thoughts on his legacy of putting so many players in the league and knowing that you would be the highest rated player he has ever signed?

“It’s a good experience. I feel like it would be a good thing for the state of Tennessee, just with me being from Tennessee, being born and raised in Tennessee. I feel like it would be a next level thing for Tennessee as a whole.”

6. What did it mean for Tennessee to offer your brother Waylon to become the first team to offer all three of you guys?

“It just showed how much they care for my family and want to work with my family. Just giving my family an equal opportunity, giving my brother an equal opportunity like I got. I feel like they’d do that for any other kid they wanted.”

7. Is your decision timeline still August? And what is it going to come down to for you to choose one of these schools?

On timeline: “I don’t know yet.”

On decision: “Wherever I feel most comfortable, where I feel most at home.”

8. What are your thoughts on Josh Heupel so far and your relationship with him?

“He’s down-to-Earth. He’s cool. Him being from Florida and me being in Florida for the little time I was, I feel like we can connect on that too. We connect on more than just football.”
The ramp leading to Powell’s turf field on West Emory Road in north Knoxville (Jake Nichols)

Nolen added later that he wasn’t sure when he’d be able to begin practice, even though Powell is already in the midst of two-a-days.

But no matter when he starts working or what school he chooses, there is one certainty for Walter Nolen this fall.

When this nation’s top defensive lineman straps on the pads, pulls on his black Air Jordan jersey and walks down Powell’s concrete ramp for his first game in Knoxville, he won’t be nearly as welcoming to visitors as the sign he saw on Day One.

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