With no VFL competition last season, unselected players struggled to push their cases for recalls to AFL level, while young, developing prospects missed out on valuable senior experience.
But with round one of the VFL starting next week, some of North Melbourne’s emerging players have been thriving under the opportunity to play at such a high level of senior football.
Rookie draft selection Patrick Walker has enjoyed plenty of game time in North’s VFL practice games this pre-season and has impressed on a number of occasions.
The 187-centimetre defender played senior football with North Hobart last season as a 17-year-old, but he says the standard of the VFL is a different level entirely.
“VFL is a lot quicker, and it’s a different game style for me,” Walker told North Media.
“I feel like I’ve adapted really well … and now we’ve been getting into some games it’s been a lot easier to connect with the boys. Training and games have just been fantastic.”
With a draft testing Yoyo score of 20.7 and an agility result of 8.34 seconds, Walker has a strong athletic profile and is a scarily efficient user by foot.
Already labelled as one of the best kicks on North’s young list, his game has improved massively in his short time at Arden Street.
The number 33 has no plans to slow down his development, saying the coaches have played a major role in his rapid rise.
“Coaches like 'Browny' (Gavin Brown) have been giving me a lot of one-on-one coaching which I haven’t really been exposed to before, so it’s been really good to see that improvement in myself,” Walker said.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work with the coaches in craft sessions after training just trying to adapt my game … with running being one of my strengths, I’m trying to use that as much as I can now I’m playing on bigger grounds.
“One of the main messages this year is to work on your weapons and kicking is one of mine, so I’m going to keep working on it, keep improving and get that skill to as high a level as I can.”
Walker’s first experience of competitive football with North came when it took on Geelong in a VFL practice game last month.
With 2016 Premiership player Luke Dahlhaus lining up for the Cats on that day, the youngster relished the opportunity to play on one of his childhood heroes.
“Dahlhaus is a great player and I was a Dogs supporter growing up, so it was a bit of a pinch yourself moment to be playing on him,” Walker added.
“It was a great experience to have in my first game at VFL level, and I loved playing on him on a big ground like GMHBA. I learnt a lot.”