Hollywood loves feel-good stories about walk-ons who make the college football team. Unfortunately, those stories are the exception, rather than the rule. Most walk-ons never make the team, especially those at big-time football programs. The ones that do often end up on practice squads. As Ryan Dorchester, coordinator of recruiting operations at West Virginia University, told The New York Times, “We’re just trying to find bodies. ... You hate to say that, but it’s true."
Preferred Walk-Ons vs. True Walk-Ons
Walk-ons are non-scholarship athletes. When people think of college football walk-ons, often they imagine an undersize long shot, such as the main character in the movie "Rudy." However, some walk-ons are as talented as those who received scholarships. The most talented are preferred walk-ons. These players are invited to try out and many are guaranteed roster spots. In most cases they are treated the same as scholarship players. They attend practice and have access to team facilities. True walk-ons are students who may have played in high school but were overlooked as prospects.
Eligibility and Enrollment
Walk-ons, preferred and otherwise, must meet NCAA eligibility requirements. This includes maintaining amateur status, as well as meeting academic requirements. To qualify as a walk-on, a player must be enrolled at the college, as a full-time student, prior to fall tryouts. Tryout dates for walk-ons are usually posted online or published in local newspapers. Incoming freshmen may benefit from having their high school football coach contact someone on the college coaching staff. In addition to NCAA eligibility requirements, some universities have school-specific guidelines. Refer to the school's athletic department website for details.
Competing for a Spot
Competition is fierce. Every player must pass a physical. All prospects will be measured and weighed. They will then be tested on strength, quickness and agility. Grouped by position, players will participate in team drills. Coaches evaluate players on their mental and physical capabilities. Decisions are largely based on a team's needs. It helps to know what those needs are prior to the tryout. For instance, a walk-on who can play left tackle, or defensive end, is better off choosing to compete for the position where the team lacks depth.
Surviving the Cut
Making the team, even the practice squad, is difficult. According to WVU's Dorchester, about 70 walk-ons try out every year and only five are invited to the practice squad. The NCAA limits Division I football teams to rosters of 105 players. Only 85 of those players can be offered scholarships. This leaves 20 roster spots for walk-ons. If a player survives being cut, opportunities will arise. Every year roster spots open due to injuries or transfers. Yes, most walk-ons go unheralded. However some, like Green Bay Packers star Clay Matthews, a walk-on at USC, go on to have cinema-worthy careers.