Breaking Down College Football’s ‘Preferred Walk-On’ Designation
“So happy to announce I will be a preferred walk-on at…” is the beginning of a sentence rampant among high school football players throughout the Twitterverse, as well as other social media outlets, at this time of the year. The sense of pride is understandable. In the past such notable players as J.J. Watt, Baker Mayfield, Clay Matthews and Jordy Nelson clawed their way to NCAA Power-5 stardom and beyond. However, for every one of these success stories come countless stories of players who may have cost themselves a fine collegiate career elsewhere.
What exactly is a preferred walk-on? The designation literally carries only one assurance — a spot on the roster at the start of camp. Other walk-ons are required to attend a round of tryouts to be chosen as a member of the football team. What about making the travel roster? Uh-uh, no guarantee there. What happens if the incoming student-athlete isn’t quite up-to-the-task, a glaring misread by the college coaches? Sorry! No chance of a do-over or a second chance, the preferred walk-on can be cut at anytime in camp. Unlike incoming scholarship players the preferred walk-on may not be able to attend on-campus summer workouts; working a job instead to help pay for his future college costs and meaning the walk-on won’t be in playing shape suitable for D1 teams. As tuition and room-and-board are the responsibility of the preferred walk-on, getting cut (which could occur at any time during the player’s college years) could result in multiple problems for the now student-only.
A 2016 article appearing in Omaha’s The Morning Call stated between 2008–2015 the University of Nebraska had 53% of walk-ons leaving before their playing eligibility expired. Skewing this data is the fact the Cornhuskers had tremendous walk-on success in 2012 with 10 of its 22 walk-ons for that year earning scholarships.
THE TRICKLE-DOWN EFFECT: Power-5 and other D-1 FBS schools using the preferred walk-on offer complete rosters past the NCAA-permitted 85 scholarships effects those student-athletes as well as coaches of FCS and D-2 football programs. Many of the players making the decision to become a preferred walk-on are giving up potential scholarship assistance from lower level NCAA and NAIA football teams. Referencing The Morning Call article, Nebraska’s Director of High School Relations said as many as 85% of those becoming Cornhusker walk-ons received scholarship offers from lower division football programs.
The preferred walk-on status is very frustrating for coaches from the NCAA FCS, D-2, or NAIA football programs. They recruit players they deem not suitable for FBS level play, but quite capable of helping their teams and believe to have them in their plans — only to see them accept an offer as a preferred walk-on. Lower division coaches have always accepted the occasional loss of an athlete they targeted due to his desire to play for MFU (My Favorite University). However, it’s not just the MFUs of the college scene taking football players of not quite FBS quality away from the FCS, etc. Student-athletes with no love for a particular university are actually believing the preferred walk-on decision is just a minor bump-in-the-road toward being offered the full scholly!
It’s still not time to hold a pity party for lower division coaches. Many of those taking a preferred walk-on route will seek out the greener (or Eastern Washington red or Central Arkansas purple and gray or other schools fashioning non-traditional gridiron colors) turf fields will decide they’ve hit the FBS wall. Will the college courting the student-athlete while in high school still be interested? That may be the case but there’s a new recruiting class to be factored into the equation and there may be a player coaches regard as being a better fit.
The pity is in the financial burden for the athlete’s preferred walk-on decision. For instance a preferred walk-on attending Ohio State University this past season, and is a state resident, will fork out nearly $30,000 for the opportunity to practice with the Buckeyes (over $44,000 for an out-of-state resident). Had the same Ohio resident taken a half-scholarship offer from FCS Youngstown State he’d have had to only cover approximately $12,000 for the freshman year, and the student-athlete may have actually seen game action.
It’s true once a preferred walk-on makes the actual roster he is treated like the scholarship athletes. He’ll be provided the team swag and the same academic and other support programs provided to scholarship players. Is that a fair trade for the mounting student loans over the time the student-athlete remains in school? That’s a question which can only be answered by the player himself.