Published August 26. 2013 4:00AM
Storrs - In his final high school football game last December, Matt Walsh walked off Rentschler Field as one of Daniel Hand's defensive standouts in a state championship win.
Walsh will return to the same field in East Hartford on Thursday as a starting fullback for the UConn football team in its season opener against Towson University.
"I really couldn't ask for anything more right now," Walsh said Sunday. "I'm really excited just to get on the field anyway I can - special teams and just fullback. I'm really excited for kickoff Thursday night."
His journey from all-state linebacker to a backfield starter as a college freshman is not as improbable as it may appear.
Walsh was a terrific two-way player for two-time Class L state champion Daniel Hand of Madison but made his biggest impact on defense, piling up 182 tackles and three sacks as a senior. He had a monster state championship game, chipping in 15 tackles and two forced fumbles in a 23-6 win over Windsor.
As a fullback in a spread offense, he played a limited role but still scored 10 touchdowns last season.
"I really only went in for certain situational times at either fullback or running back," Walsh said. "So I really just anchored the defense at linebacker. ? It did help me with my college career recruiting having two positions. It helped me be more valuable.
"I really don't prefer one or the other, as long as I'm on the field."
Walsh made enough of an impression for UConn to recruit him as a fullback. With the position open, he seized the opportunity and won the starting job during preseason. Redshirt freshman Jazzmar Clax is listed as the backup on the depth chart.
"Matt has just picked everything up very, very well," coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "His craft is really at the linebacker position in high school. ? We had him in our camp for a couple of years and we were able to coach and get our hands on him in drills and teach him football during the summer. We really liked him as a fullback so we offered him (a scholarship) as a fullback.
"As he learns the system and grows, he's going to have a chance to be that traditional fullback."
Walsh is the only true freshman starter on either offense or defense. Freshman Brian Lemelle earned a starting spot on special teams as a punt returner.
It is likely that the 6-foot, 227-pound Walsh will play a minor role in the offense. Fullbacks have basically been blocking backs in UConn's system.
But that could change with a new offensive coordinator in T.J. Weist, who's added a few new wrinkles.
During workouts, Walsh has performed a variety of duties.
"They kind of have us doing everything - a lot of blocking, pass blocking, sprint outs," Walsh said. "I roll out onto the flat and catch passes and get the ball up the middle, Kind of everything a fullback possibility can do."
Whatever his role, Walsh will gladly embrace it. He's impressed his teammates with his mature approach and work ethic.
"The kid is a hard worker," redshirt junior tailback Lyle McCombs said. "He's good. He doesn't have a young mentality. He came in ready to play and ready to work and he's willing to do whatever the team needs him to do."
Walsh hopes he has as much success in his college career playing at Rentschler as he did at Daniel Hand, which won the last two state championships.
There's added pressure for any in-state player at UConn. He knows people will be closely following his career. Growing up, he regularly attended UConn home games.
"It kind of does put more weight on your shoulders to do everything you can do, especially set a good example," Walsh said. "The Connecticut players playing in-state here, all the Connecticut high school football players follow them and you see them at the games so you have to set a good example.
"And if you are able to make an impact early, that's a great motivation for all the other players trying to get to this level."
According to Walsh, several hundred people from Madison, including his entire family, will be there to support him in Thursday's season opener.
It will be an emotional night.
"A lot of goosebumps, that's for sure, especially playing on that field twice so far for two state championships," Walsh said. "You always thought about one day maybe playing in the full stadium and this Thursday it's going to happen.
"I really don't know what to expect. I'm really excited. I can't wait."