The first words heard upon walking up to the Knoxville-area showdown between Powell (Tenn.) and Knoxville Catholic, in a steady and cool rain on Thursday night, were somewhat expected.
"There's number 99."
The onlooker, directing SI All-American towards the Powell home field, was helping us locate the nation's top-ranked defensive football recruit, Walter Nolen.
Looking a bit slimmer than the last time our staff lied eyes upon the 6'4", 310-pound prospect, he wasted no time getting the crowd behind him pregame and flashed on the first drive of the game, forcing a fumble. Nolen would register a sack, two tackles for loss and nearly a scoop and score in a dramatic rivalry game.
Powell would fall 30-29 after allowing a late score, but Nolen's power and short-area quickness was on display throughout the affair. He moved up and down the defensive front, with success outside as well as on the interior despite double and triple teams, he even worked at tight end and served as a rock solid lead blocker for Panther running backs. In the temporary offensive role he made contact with multiple defenders on at least three occasions.
"I guess you could say I've been playing more aggressive," Nolen said after the game. "Just with the trust I got with my team, I can play more aggressive now and know that any given day they have my back."
The athleticism at his size, natural ability and room to improve technique are why the nation's top college football programs are all over the senior. Nolen amassed dozens of scholarship offers and his list of top schools has changed several times, but several remain in the hunt as Early Signing Day draws near in December.
Nolen was at Florida for his first official visit in June and the Gators got him back on campus for the Alabama game in September. Defensive line coach David Turner was the only confirmed college coach who made the trip to see the top target in action on Thursday night. Several Tennessee football players were on hand, too.
Texas A&M got him on campus for the upset over then-No. 1 Alabama and appeared to drive momentum their way. He had taken an official visit prior and is expected back at College Station this weekend. A bit banged up with an ankle and/or foot injury following the back-and-forth affair, there was a chance he would not get on a flight over the weekend.
"I should be at A&M thi
s weekend," Nolen said. "I don't feel like going (right now), but I'm probably going just because."
Talk of getting to Alabama for an official in early November was present earlier in the season, but the coveted prospect said the only trip in his plans after the A&M unofficial visit is a trip right down the road to Tennessee.
"I'm going to be at Tennessee when they play Georgia for my official," he said.
That places Nolen in Knoxville the weekend of November 13 with a full month to make his college decision before the Early Signing Period opens on December 15. The newest Powell star, who plays with his younger brother Warren Nolen (class of 2025) in the trenches, wants to focus on the Panthers and their potential run towards a state championship.
"After my visit to Tennessee, I'm done," Nolen said. "I'm not going anywhere else after that."
Despite top groups of programs he has released, with the latest being Georgia, A&M and UT as the top three, Nolen says programs like Alabama, Florida and Michigan remain in consistent contact and under consideration for a commitment.
In finding the right place, there appears to be a pause ahead of the final stage of the recruiting process. A specific window for going public with his pick has yet to materialize.
"I don't know," Nolen said of when a commitment could be made. "It just depends how I'm feeling. Whenever I feel most comfortable.
"But right now, I am not thinking about any school but my school."
Nolen, who has helped Powell to a 7-2 record to date, ranks as the No. 2 overall recruit and No. 1 interior defensive line projection in the recruiting class of 2022.