Choctaws football gain top tier experience / Braxton Lewis

LT Ikner is one of the most attractive names on the Mississippi College football roster. The upcoming senior defensive lineman hasn’t played a down for the Choctaws but brings Division I experience to the table. Ikner is a former walk-on for the Alabama Crimson Tide and is hoping to carry the DI energy over to Division II. 

The Daphne, Alabama, native started his collegiate career at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kansas. There he totaled 29 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 10 tackles for loss over the span of two seasons. Adversity was nothing that Ikner could not handle. During his freshman campaign at HCC, Ikner tore his ACL in their fifth game. Despite the injury and having a decline in numbers his second year, the University of Akron offered the JUCO product a spot on the team. 

“They couldn’t sign off my scholarship because apparently my injury could have a lasting effect on my back… Turns out, they had one scholarship left. It was out of me and a transfer out of Indiana. So they decided to get the running back instead of me,” Ikner said. 

Ikner never had an offer from the University of Alabama out of high school or junior college. However, the defensive lineman attended football camps across the south in high school. At those camps, Alabama representatives told him that they could not give him a scholarship offer, but if he needed them, they could give him a preferred walk-on spot. After the Akron scholarship offer fell through, a recruiting director asked the JUCO transfer if he wanted to come home to Alabama, and Ikner took the chance. 

Ikner became a member of the practice squad and did not have a scholarship. Due to the lack of scholarship and low grades, the former walk-on stepped away from the Alabama program. He was third on the depth chart. 

Nicholas Walker, also a former Division I athlete, played a portion of his collegiate career at the University of Illinois. The defensive back and St. Louis native had an exceptional 2021 season for the Choctaws where he racked up 29 tackles and three interceptions. Like Ikner, Walker also played at the JUCO level at Cisco College in Texas. Once at Illinois, Walker did not play much in his first year, but played frequently in his final two years in the program. During the spring 2020 season, Walker was a starter at the Nickel position, but later chose to opt out due to COVID-19. 

“We came back in the summertime and I decided that I wanted to opt out because of how the season was going and how people [were] getting sick,” Walker said. 

Both Walker and Ikner were around NFL and other professional football caliber players. Ikner sat behind players like LaBryan Ray, Phidarian Mathis, Justin Eboigbe, and Byron Young while at Alabama. In practices, he would go against Alex Leatherwood, who was chosen by the Las Vegas Raiders with the 17th overall pick of the 2021 NFL draft.

As for Walker, one of his former teammates from Illinois, Nate Hobbs, was drafted by the Las Vegas Raiders in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL draft. Walker reflected on his relationship with Hobbs and said that their position room at Illinois consisted of potential professional football players. 

“There’s way more than just him that’s about to go to the league. Tony Adams, he’s probably going to go. Kirby Joseph … he’s about to go to the league and get drafted. So it was really more of a brotherhood for the most part,” the St. Louis native said. 

Walker and Ikner entered the transfer portal. Both players had thoughts of leaving football altogether. Walker wanted to pursue a career in having a restaurant and Ikner only entertained the thought of making football his past. Ikner entered the portal wanting to find another home to showcase his talents, while the former Illinois product entered for the experience, hoping to hear from a coach. 

The Division I athletes both found their way to Clinton, Miss. Defensive Coordinator Tony Gilbert has a way of connecting with top talent and was the sole reason the two individuals wear navy and gold. 

“‘We really need a guy like you, you’re a great fit, we need some older, experienced guys and somebody that plays at your type of level.’ They were feeding me a lot of good stuff that I really liked. I didn’t have to be nobody that I wasn’t. I’m a real quiet guy and they told me that I needed to be a leader and they told me to stay true to who you are,” Ikner said on how Gilbert and his staff persuaded him. 

Walker and Gilbert had a connection before the 5’10” Missouri native came to Mississippi. Gilbert had coached Walker at a prior institution before he came to the Choctaws. 

“The only person I knew when I got here was Coach G, his wife, and [his son] Tony,” Walker explained. 

The former DI players believe that the intensity they bring in practice will trickle down to the rest of their team, especially on the defensive side of the ball. 

“When everybody starts firing up … that’s when intensity comes.When intensity comes, that’s how you start getting physical. When you start getting physical, you start playing as a team, start playing as a unit,” Ikner expressed.

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