Walk-on players find their role on Illinois football team


photo courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Illini tight end Bobby Walker lines up on offense against Western Kentucky University. Illinois went on to beat the Hilltoppers 20-7 for their second and last win of the 2017 season. Walker was originally a walk-on player who was later offered a scholarship in the middle of his sophomore season.

By Tatiania Perry, Staff writer

Not all walk-on stories are Cinderella stories.

The college football walk-on is often ignored. Only on rare occasions will a player transform into a future NFL star, like USC walk-on and current Green Bay Packer Clay Matthews.

Two categories of walk-ons exist in college football: preferred walk-ons and those who tried out.

Most preferred walk-ons were talented players in high school who had opportunities to play at smaller schools, but dreamt of playing football at a higher level.

For some, like Illinois tight end Bobby Walker, an inconclusive recruiting process led to a walk-on opportunity.

“I really didn’t know where I wanted to go,” Walker said. “I was looking at a bunch of Ivy League and Patriot League schools, and I ended up not going that route.”

After talking to the coaches at Illinois, Walker decided it was the right fit for him.

However, like many college athletes’ situations, the University wasn’t able to offer Walker a scholarship immediately. Despite not being on a scholarship, Walker made his way up the depth chart as tight end and played in all 12 games during the 2017 season.  

Not many walk-ons end up being awarded a scholarship, but Walker was one of the lucky few. In fact, Illini head coach Lovie Smith called Walker on Christmas Day to deliver the news that he had officially received a scholarship.

Scholarship or not, preferred walk-ons get the same treatment in terms of school visits and meeting coaches. These players also get the same treatment on the field, as the players can serve a vital role in the team’s depth. For example, the Illini have roughly 85 scholarships, but there are about 122 players on the roster.  

The walk-ons begin practices in the summer along with their scholarship counterparts; they have their lockers and jerseys from day one. And the players maintain the same perks as their teammates, besides the free schooling.

Illinois wide receiver Jordan Roberts represents the other side of the walk-on story. The senior tried out for the team just hoping to earn a spot on the roster.

Roberts first began his athletic career at a different school, playing an entirely different sport. The athlete played basketball at Southern Illinois University until he decided to transfer to Illinois.

“I wanted to get a better education,” Roberts said. “So I came to Illinois.”

After talking to former Illini defensive back Jaylen Dunlap, whom Roberts knew from high school, he learned there were open tryouts for the football team and decided to see if he had what it takes.

“I was terribly out of shape,” Roberts said. “I definitely had to work a lot harder than a lot of the kids that were already on the team, because I didn’t prove myself yet.”

Roberts, along with 30-40 hopefuls, showed up to the open call tryouts, where no more than three to five students actually made it through the initial cuts.

One of those students who landed on the team last season was wide receiver Keith Jones.

Jones tried out at the conclusion of his freshman year and has been asked back for his second spring. Of the 30 or so young men who tried out with him, just two are left, and Jones says he learned a lot in his time with the team.

One thing is for sure, Jones and the other walk-ons know that when living the walk-on lifestyle, any day can be the last, and that’s why those who are fortunate enough to make the team must continually prove they can perform.

“You think you can work hard and by yourself,” Jones said. “Then you get around a bunch of guys and see how they grind every day, come in when they don’t want to come in, and know that even when they are hurt, they are grinding.”


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