The world of the college football walk-on is one that remains a mystery to most fans. They either see the guys like Jared Abbrederis and Clay Matthews, who start out as walk-ons and then become full-fledged, big-time contributors, or they envision the Rudy Ruettiger's of the world.
The typical walk-on at a big time program generally lies somewhere in the middle. Most guys don't end up becoming All-Conference or, in the case of Matthews, All-Pro players. However, the bulk of kids that stick on collegiate rosters also are not nobodies from nowhere who cannot play a lick.
Walk-ons tend to fall into two main categories: recruited and unrecruited. Under the recruited category, you get guys who were certainly good enough to warrant the school's interest, but could not be offered a scholarship in that cycle. Unrecruited means exactly what it says, guys the school never actually looked at or reached out to.
Recruited walk-ons are essential to the world of college football. There is a reason your favorite team has 85 scholarships but damn near 130 players on the roster. Between greyshirts and preferred walk-ons, the bulk of those extra guys were accomplished ballplayers in their own rights.
Some of them are the not-as-good teammates of scholarship guys. Others are player No. 30 in a signing class of 25 who didn't get an offer from said school, but would rather be there than somewhere else playing for free. Still other players are legacy guys whose dad or brother was a stud and the school wants to see if they can grow into a ballplayer, if given time.
These kids get the same letters and invites to games as the scholarship members of a recruiting class. They take visits and get phone calls from coaches. They meet with the coach before making their decision on their future and discuss where the opportunity for them to succeed exists.
Recruited guys generally come in with camp, they are part of the 105 for at least their freshman year. Some opt to go to summer school, with the rest of the incoming signing class, to get a head start on working out and school. They get their lockers, numbers, jerseys and they get out there and practice from Day 1 in the fall.
The point here is that these guys are not trying out for the team, they are on the team.
Which brings us to the other group, the guys that those who believe in Rudy expect walk-ons to be, the un-recruited types.
These are your tryout guys. These are your guys that either did not get looks in high school or who did not even play high school ball at all. These are the guys who read the school newspaper and discover that their school is going to give anyone interested a shot to make the big team.
Oh, and they come out in droves. Guys in college, gassed up by their friends and drunk off of Rudy, are so pumped for a chance to wear the uniform of Big State Tech or Dream School U. What comes next is a time either before or after practice where the strength and conditioning coaches put these guys through their paces.
They run 40s. They do agility drills. They push them through timed conditioning runs. They yell at them. They ask them why they think they're good enough. Essentially, pushing to see which of these guys are ready to quit before the real challenge even starts.
What emerges from that is a couple of guys who have just enough to get on the roster. Generally, they have a football background or they are guys with some real raw size or speed.
Then, the real challenge starts for these guys: practice. A college football practice is not as physical as its NFL counterpart, but is far more physical than high school—even without tackling. That's because the players are so much better. The name of the game on the collegiate landscape is THUD tempo, and that means bodies going fast and colliding.
Here is where, in the walk-on process, you separate who sticks from who cannot. The guys who have "made the team" for the fall or spring are put through their paces. They hit, they block, they tackle and run through drills. These guys also have to lift weights, do the running and everything else that comes with being a collegiate football player.
Some guys give it up because they cannot get their schoolwork done after lifting, running and practicing. Others hang it up because, simply put, they are sick of getting their behinds whipped on a daily basis. And some guys opt out because it is nowhere near as glamorous or as fun as they thought it would be.
What you're left with, after the dust settles and the scholarship and non-scholarship players who would rather be elsewhere leave, is your team. Those are the guys you lift with. Those are the guys you run with. Those are the guys who you celebrate wins and cry over losses with.
Scholarship guys prove themselves on the front end, before they are out of high school. For walk-ons, especially unrecruited walk-ons, that proof of ability and determination has to come on the college side of things, and it isn't easy.