Still plenty of obstacles for walk-ons at Penn State
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The fact that Penn State coach Bill O'Brien has assigned a new name not just for his walk-on program -- "run-on" -- but for the scout-team duties ("the dirty show") these athletes will perform illustrates his desire to attract attention to a role that receives little of it.
This is because he needs to. With an NCAA-mandated limit of 65 scholarship players starting in 2014, Penn State has to convince athletes they should spend upwards of $8,000 a year to practice for Penn State, with little guarantee of playing, instead of taking a scholarship to Bucknell, Villanova, et al.
The task has not been daunting so far.
Based on data from recruiting websites Lions247 and Blue-White Illustrated, as well as independent confirmations, Penn State should have about 20 walk-ons beginning their freshman seasons this fall, about twice the usual number the team has had in recent years.
O'Brien has said the stories of walk-ons turned contributors will help in recruiting new ones. Penn State did have an inordinate number last season: Matt McGloin, Matt Lehman, Derek Day, Jake Fagnano, Jesse Della Valle and Emery Etter were current or former walk-ons who played significant roles. And Lehman and special-teams ace Ryan Keiser parlayed their success into scholarships for this upcoming year.
The walk-on reality is much less glamorous.
Players and fans should not get used to that level of success. A look at all walk-ons from the 2009-12 seasons shows it to be almost unanimously a thankless job. In those years, between 81 and 83 percent of the players who started their careers as walk-ons either did not play or played very little. In the same time frame, 17 Penn State walk-ons quit before playing four years or using all their eligibility, while only 11 started or played a significant role outside of special teams.
McGloin's 2008 walk-on class featured him, Fagnano and Evan Lewis. They played a lot in their careers. It also featured David Keisling, Mikel Berry and Sean Luchnick. They left within two years.
Wide receiver Tariq Tongue came to Penn State in 2009 and did not record a statistic in three seasons. He said the walk-ons were treated like everyone else, but even the most talented ones had to surmount a formidable challenge.
"They invest in the other players," Tongue said. "If they invest in somebody, they're going to put them in front of you."
Though he considered transferring after the 2011 season, Tongue stayed at Penn State but did not play football. He said he sees the diversity of O'Brien's offense and the current scholarship situation as providing better opportunities for those who are walk-ons now.
Recruiting coordinator Charles London said the Nittany Lions have attracted numerous walk-ons not necessarily because of those factors, but because many of them dreamed of playing for Penn State. That's a major reason North Allegheny's Gregg Garrity Jr. accepted an invitation.
His father, Gregg Sr., was a success story in the early 1980s. He arrived at Penn State with what he remembers as three or four other walk-ons. But no one really called them that. Because no one really knew they were walk-ons.
"They kept it so secret that even the scholarship players didn't even know," he said.
It felt like they snuck in under the guise of night. And in a way, they did. The walk-ons started practicing at the same time as incoming scholarship freshmen in freshman-only practices the first few days. They were a bunch of inexperienced players melded together.
Garrity Sr.'s story ended with a national championship, a Sports Illustrated cover and an NFL opportunity. One of the only things he, along with McGloin and others, have in common with most walk-ons is that Penn State, and college football in general, celebrates their efforts (this is why people still watch the movie "Rudy"). They embody the term 'walk-on' but they are not an accurate representation.
Garrity Jr. and the others who will walk on this fall clearly want the McGloin scenario to unfold for them. And one or two might become contributors in a few years. Some might quit. Most will practice and see the field here and there and likely enjoy doing so.
Garrity Sr. said he hasn't shared too much advice with his son about walking on. But he told him this:
"You really have to love football," Garrity said. "You can't just like football and play up there."
First Published February 18, 2013 12:00 am