LAUREL, MS - Even now, at 5 feet, 8 inches, and 176 pounds, Levi Walker, physically, never has been the biggest man on the football field.
He simply tries to play like it.
"He's probably playing in the wrong era," Laurel coach Todd Breland said. "He'd probably be better off the in the '60s. He doesn't ask for anything. He doesn't talk a lot. He just shows up for work.
"When you try and give him a break, he gets mad at you. He had some minor knee surgery this off-season and I thought I was going to have to fight him to stay off of it, let's get you well. But he's a true leader by definition of he leads by example. He's not a rah-rah guy. But he's a violent football player."
Walker, a junior, will start at cornerback for a second consecutive season, and is expected to see an uptick in offensive snaps from 2016 as a change-of-pace running back.
"Anywhere they need me," Walker said. "I feel like I've got something to prove. I've got to get better and better every year."
Breland said Walker just loves to play football.
"He doesn't talk in there, at all," Breland said, pointing toward the locker room, "but he puts that helmet on and he's going to light somebody up.
"He ain't as big as a hiccup, but he's probably the most athletic kid I've ever coached. And he's old school. He doesn't want any gloves. Just give me a helmet and some shoes. He just wants to play football and fish."
Laurel will be dropping a line in the waters of Class 5A football, trying once again to land a state championship that slipped the hook in 2016.
After a 1-1 start last season, the Golden Tornadoes whirled their way to 12 consecutive victories, including a South State title that sent them into the Class 5A championship game where they fell 29-8 to West Point High School on cold and rainy night at Mississippi State University's Davis Wade Stadium.
"To make it that far and not win, it's tough," Walker said. "We should be all right. There're some kinks to work out, but we should be fine.
"(Laurel's success) has been going on for so long, you don't want to come in there and not be happening. You've got to step up."
Breland, who will be heading into his sixth season at the helm, says he's eager yet uncertain about the season ahead.
"This is the first year where I just don't know," Breland said. "We've got talented kids, but we'll just have to see."
Laurel lost quarterback Tyquan Ulmer and receivers Dontarrio Drummond, Je'Vah Jones and Anthony Jones as well as three starting linemen from a potent offense from a season ago.
Breland said Laurel also will be without its lead running back, junior Michael Terrell, who had offseason shoulder surgery and is not expected back until October.
Four players are vying at quarterback, including junior Sinclair Ulmer, who started the first two games of the 2016 season and then backed up Tyquan Ulmer the rest of the season. Also in the mix are juniors Jon Montes and Trevon Smith and freshman Xavier Evans.
Walker and junior Melyjah Windham are slated for the backfield, but the most intriguing backfield option may be newcomer Zais Perryman, a home-schooled junior who joined the Golden Tornadoes late last season, but did not play.
Seniors Juan Nelson, P.J. Bester and Kobie Ulmer and junior Jontarious Henderson form the core of a speedy receiving corps. That group will be augmented by senior Brandon Gordon, who was at Laurel as a sophomore before playing at South Jones High School in 2016, with senior tight end Julius Moss expected to offer another target.
Senior tackles Charles Cross and Anton Loftin are expected to anchor the offensive line along with center Brandon Crosby.
On defense, seniors Kason Chinn and Tirekus Atwood are expected to be head the list of linemen, with Cross and Loftin also in the rotation.
Seniors Jaylen Smith, Patrick Andrews, Vandorian Lyles and Jaques Bester head up a veteran linebacking corps, while seniors Victor Coleman and Quendarious Robertson and junior Marquavious Naylor will figure in at safety.
Walker will be joined in the cornerback rotation by senior Javion Tillman and sophomore Keno Shelby.
"I love the challenge, and our kids love the challenge," Breland said of 2017. "I know it's going to be difficult, but we're going to come in and work.
"I do know this. We're going to compete, we're going to compete the right way and we're going to compete hard. If the kids do that, you can't ask for anything else."