USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Joe is a former college-athlete and coach at the NAIA level, where he earned an NAIA National Championship. Joe is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
The film Rudy may have skewed your expectation of becoming a college walk-on. Most student-athletes think a walk-on is someone who didn’t get recruited. However, they enrolled in the university, made their way to tryouts and huzzah!—landed a spot on the team. Unlike the Hollywood version, the reality is more complicated than that.
Different types of walk-on players
For starters, there are different classifications of walk-ons. And most of them are actually recruited by a college coach. Here are the different types of walk-ons:
During the recruiting process, a college coach may designate an athlete as a preferred walk-on. These athletes are guaranteed a spot on the roster (and for football, an invitation to pre-season camp.) However, they won’t receive an athletic scholarship.
Some Division I sports, including football (FBS only), men’s and women’s basketball, tennis, gymnastics, and volleyball, are restricted in the number of athletes that can be on a scholarship. So after all the scholarships are offered, the remaining spots are for walk-ons. In other words, the college coach wants the recruit on their team, but they just don’t have a scholarship for them. In football, you’ll find this more common with specialist positions, like kickers.
Like a preferred walk-on, these student-athletes are actively recruited by the college coach. However, their position on the team isn’t guaranteed. More likely than not, the coach will ask them to attend a tryout once they’re on campus.
Walk-on (not recruited)
This is the scenario most families imagine when they think about walk-ons—the Rudy story. The student-athlete, against all odds, works their way onto the team by attending an open tryout. In reality, though, this isn’t usually the case. Most student-athletes who walk onto a program have a relationship with the college coach ahead of time. And, even more, the coach has actually confirmed that they can tryout.
Can your athlete walk on to a program?
It’s definitely possible for your child to walk on to a program. Many student-athletes do it every year—46 percent of DI athletes and 39 percent of DII athletes to be exact. But there are a few things your family should keep in mind.
Very few scholarship opportunities
Your student-athlete can go from being a walk-on to getting a scholarship, but they’d probably only receive a partial scholarship if they’ve been on the team for multiple years. College coaches may be more inclined to invest in the athletes they recruited, so full rides are really hard to come by for walk-ons.
Little or no playing time
The majority of walk-on players are initially put on the scout team, meaning they participate in practice, but don’t receive any playing time. And, depending on the program size, they may not be able to travel with the team as well. Some walk-ons do get more playing time their junior or senior year, though.
Limited resources available
While this isn’t true for every program, I’ve heard of walk-ons not getting the same perks as scholarship athletes. For example, they don’t have academic resources available to them, or the coach favors the student-athletes they recruited over walk-ons. It may not be the case for your athlete, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.
Becoming a walk-on player
To improve your child’s odds of making the team, they should try to establish a relationship with the coach before they head to college, especially because some coaches may not have time to hold open tryouts. It’s better to set the right expectations from the start.
Also, you want to make sure becoming a walk-on is the right fit for your athlete. If they want to start and receive a lot of playing time, or are relying on a scholarship, then it’s probably too big of a risk to take.
For some college walk-ons, it’s more about the college and academic opportunity. They’re set on going to a specific college, whether they can compete or not. For others, it’s about the level of competition they’re at, so starting isn’t a priority. They’d rather have the opportunity to compete at the highest division level possible.
It’s important to keep in mind that every recruiting journey is different. Some seem tougher than others and becoming a college walk-on is hard work. But when it works out in the end, it’s completely worth it.
If you walk on, treat every practice like a tryout
At least it was for Michael Dufek, Head Recruiting Coach at Next College Student Athlete who walked-on at the University of Michigan. He received several offers from junior colleges and small four-year universities. “I was very passionate about playing at a ‘name brand’ program and I thought my skill set would translate better at higher levels of college baseball,” he says.
So, he bypassed scholarship opportunities and instead took the preferred walk-on route. “The biggest benefit I took away from being a walk-on was my determination to prove a lot of people wrong,” he says. “I wanted to show everyone that I could make an impact at the Division I level. Every workout, practice, scrimmage, and game I would think about this and use it as motivation to perform at a high level.”
His advice to student-athletes? “You will start from the bottom and there’s a risk you may get cut. But if you embrace the underdog mentality and treat every practice as if it’s a tryout, you may earn your spot in the starting lineup. After all, coaches love competitors.”