Todd LaRocca was one of the best high school quarterbacks in the state when he graduated last month from Bishop Kearney.
A first-team all-state player,
LaRocca excelled in the state’s division for the smallest schools, but he said he feels capable of playing in the NCAA’s highest division of college football. None of the college teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision agreed with him, and no school offered him an athletic scholarship.
And of the two Football Championship Subdivision schools in what previously was known as Division I-AA that offered him a scholarship, LaRocca determined they were not a good fit.
So LaRocca decided to take a road into Division I football that has a few bumps, joining the State University of New York at Buffalo’s team as a walk-on. The West Henrietta resident has no scholarship to pay for tuition, room and board and no promises he will ever play for the Bulls.
Some walk-on players have no guarantees that they will even make a team, although preferred walk-ons such as LaRocca are usually assured there are spots for them.
For LaRocca, it’s a chance.
“This is kind of what I’ve had to do before, me having to walk-on is a lot like high school, you have to show what you can do,” LaRocca said. “I like the challenge.
“It makes me a better person if I have to work for something, as opposed to being handed something.”
Molinich, a fullback at Buffalo, spent three seasons as a walk-on with the Bulls. He begins his redshirt junior season this summer as a scholarship player after playing on special teams and then in the Buffalo offense. A 2013 Democrat and Chronicle All-Greater Rochester running back with some interest in Syracuse, Molinich considered playing at Hobart and Ithaca, a pair of Division III schools, before he decided to accept status as a preferred walk-on at Buffalo.
“It was a huge gamble,’’ Molinich said. “I didn’t realize how much, until after I started playing in games. With my abilities, I definitely could have contributed at Hobart or Ithaca, maybe be more versatile.
“Coming to Buffalo, I really had to believe in myself, take the opportunity and run with it.’’
Shuman, an all-state first team offensive lineman in high school, is competing to play at Penn State. He went to Happy Valley in 2014, after he turned down a full scholarship from Old Dominion in Virginia, a relative newcomer to FBS, compared to Penn State. His grandfather was a member of the Penn State track and field team.
“I’ve always wanted to play here,” Shuman said. “I love everything about it. “Other than having to pay, it’s all the same, in terms of how we are treated. It’s definitely a grind, but I love it. Coaches, players, scholarship athletes and walk-ons, we’re all here working toward the common goal.”
College football is a numbers game
Teams are allowed to have 85 scholarship players on the roster, per NCAA rules, and the roster bulges to 100 and even 130 in some programs during the preseason.
“We recruit a walk-on just as much as a scholarship player,’’ Old Dominion assistant head coach for offense and quarterback coach Ron Whitcomb said. “We target kids in-state that for whatever reason — a senior year injury or they got a late start in football — who are not receiving scholarships. We approach it from two angles.
Whitcomb said walk-ons have “hunger”, “are willing to outwork everyone” and they are “invaluable” for practice.
“If you have a starter and you want to reduce his repetitions, you can go with a young walk-on, and you are trying to develop that walk-on,” he said. “It has been huge for our team.’’
The non-scholarship players described by Whitcomb, an East Rochester graduate who played quarterback at Maine, are known as preferred walk-ons. These players are invited to join the team, sometimes as early as summer workouts, compared to true walk-ons.
Molinich said that he was recruited by Buffalo as a high school senior. Former Bulls head coach Jeff Quinn made a visit that school year, while the Pittsford team lifted weights, according to Molinich.
“I made my decision a little after my 18th birthday,’’ Molinich said. “I talked with my family and took a drive to the campus. I was there once or twice, but not with becoming a student on my mind.
“I told him that I was all in. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play Division I football.”
And with Division I comes a increased level of skill among the players.
“The talent level goes up with the school,’’ Whitcomb said. “A walk-on at Ohio State is a really, really talented player. They are getting a kid who was probably all-state and has always wanted to play for Ohio State.
“We target walk-on players, beginning in their junior year. We are very direct with them. We say, even when the player is receiving scholarship offers, we are recruiting them as a walk-on. They get treated the same. They get the same opportunity to play, they wear the same gear.’’
And for some athletes and their families, that is enough.
“Kids and their parents are more in tune with the benefits of walking on at power conference schools,’’ Whitcomb said. “You are flying charter to games. You are lifting weights in 12,000 square-foot facilities. You are draped head to toe in Under Armour gear.’’
Not everyone on a roster, however, partakes in those or the less extravagant fringe benefits with smaller college programs. If Old Dominion coaches decide on a 120-player roster, 60 travel to road games, maybe 70 are in uniform during home games.
Those numbers may be larger or smaller, depending on the program and what conference the school is a member of.
“It’s super competitive,’’ Whitcomb said, noting that walk-ons and scholarship players try to outdo one another in practice on a daily basis. “The big talk in training camp is that you ‘have to get on that bus.’ It’s really tough to make the travel squad.’’
The Eye In The Sky doesn’t lie
Coaches are paid to win games, and the schools that they work for can collect tens of millions of dollars from victories. The more talent that coaches can get into their programs, the better chance for their teams have to win. The more talent a coach brings on to a team, the more difficult it can be for players to get on the field.
All full scholarships to play football at the FBS-level technically span a year. So walk-ons have to outperform players that the school is investing in.
“It’s like going into (a NFL) camp as a free agent,” Kearney varsity coach Eddie Long said. “Even if you are a scholarship player, if you don’t ‘Wow’ the coaches, it’s not going to matter anyway.
“I tell my guys, the eye in the sky doesn’t lie. Everything at that level is filmed. You may get two reps (snaps or plays at practice) and you have to make the most of those.”
Molinich, like some preferred walk-ons, joined the Bulls not long after his high school commencement ceremony. There are team workouts in the summer, so Molinich said he would sometimes commute and stay overnight with a teammate.
“It sort of takes a toll on you,’’ he said. “You just have to earn everything you get as a walk-on. You have a lot more things on your plate, like the normal rent and utilities stuff. Scholarship players don’t have to work (at a job), they are getting everything taken care of by the school.
“You have to get a job on campus. With that money factor, it just makes it harder for walk-ons.’’
Molinich said it was “pay his way, put his head down and grind.’’
“The first three years, I did everything the scholarship players were doing,’’ he said. “Waking up for workouts in the winter, we had to be on the field at 6 a.m. Going to school for classes, doing all of my homework, sometimes staying up late and then waking up to do it all again.’’
Molinich said that after early scheduled workouts, he would go to classes from about 8 a.m. to noon. He would spend an hour or so for lunch, before heading to two-hour position meetings, which include video study. Team practice began at 3:30 p.m.
“Glynn had to go against Khalil Mack in practice,’’ his father, Keith Molinich, the Pittsford varsity high school football coach, said.
Mack was named to the Associated Press All-Pro first team last season, while playing linebacker and defensive end for the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.
After banging shoulder pads with Mack and other players trying to make good impressions, Molinich said it was back to his dorm room for homework and studying. He is a history major.
“There definitely are nights when you don’t get to bed until 11 or 12 and you have to do it all over in the morning.’’
Molinich, maybe earlier than most walk-ons, began to see payoffs, small ones but acceptable to him. Bulls coaches sent him in during kick-offs as a redshirt freshman. The following season he saw action during punts and kickoffs.
“The opportunities are always there but a lot of guys don’t have that mindset,’’ Molinich said. “A lot of people want to play the position they played in high school. At this level, you need to have stars who think about the whole team concept.
“The opportunities are there, but not everyone is willing to do that type of work.’’
As a reward for the way Molinich handled “the dirty work’’ and other opportunities, he was given a scholarship by the Bulls coaching staff heading into his second season in 2016. Molinich, who is 6-feet tall and 245 pounds, is expected to start at fullback.
“I’ve heard stories about coaches coming in and cutting all of the walk-ons as a way of cleaning house,’’ Molinich said. “I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but it came into my mind. I made all of that progress with the coaching staff over two years and I felt like I had to prove myself again. I did, but it wasn’t as hard.
“I really was sort of speechless (when I was given the scholarship this past spring). I really didn’t know if I ever was going to get it. I’m so grateful that in the end, they were able to give me that full ride.’’
It is conceivable that a walk-on player never plays a down. It is also conceivable that a former walk-on such as J.J. Watt, who has become an Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year three times in the NFL after walking on at Wisconsin, can excel.
Whitcomb said that since 2009, an average of three walk-ons per year at Old Dominion later receive full scholarships, a total of 21 players since the school fielded a team again seven years ago.
“A lot of times these players are just as talented as the scholarship players,’’ Whitcomb said. “If anything, they get more respect because of what they need to do in order to play.’’
“If I didn’t take the opportunity, I was going to regret it the rest of my life.”
LaRocca, who is 6-2 and 195 pounds, expects that there will be six quarterbacks on the Buffalo roster by the time preseason camp begins in Buffalo during August.
“Depending on how well I do, I could earn my scholarship that way,” LaRocca said about competition. “The opportunities are going to be there, I just have to be ready.”
Temple, Albany, Old Dominion, Delaware State and Saint Francis were among the other schools LaRocca considered, before choosing to walk-on at Buffalo.
Shuman calls putting on a Penn State uniform his dream since he was eight years old.
“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play there,” Shuman said.”It was one of those things where you don’t want to have any regrets after you are done with the whole thing.
“If I didn’t take the opportunity, I was going to regret it the rest of my life.”
Shuman, who said he will be a redshirt sophomore in terms of athletic eligibility and a junior academically this fall, majors in kinesiology. The 6-8 inch, 295-pound tackle has seen no game action. He has dressed for 14 Penn State home games, played in two annual Blue-White scrimmages and traveled with the Nittany Lions as a reserve to two bowl games and the team’s 2014 game against Central Florida in Ireland.
“I was 310 pounds in my last year of high school,” Shuman said. “I was down to 287 at the end of my freshman season, because I’ve lost so much fat. Now I’m building it back up with good weight.
“It could be a lot worse. I enjoy the experiences we go through.”
Shuman feels that he belongs, and Long said that it is clear LaRocca will fit in at Buffalo.
“UB came to the school to talk to Todd a number of times,” Long said. “In my heart, Todd is definitely a Division I-A player. I’ve played (at Connecticut) and been around people who have (played Division I football). He has the attributes.
“In our offense, he was making all of the college throws. Like I told him, if you believe in yourself, go for it. Once they see him drop back and make the throws, he’ll be OK anyway. He’s a winner, he’s going to outwork people. He’ll fit right in.”
Molinich’s younger brother, Jake, also plans to join the Buffalo Bulls as a preferred walk-on. The younger Molinich, a freshman, also is a fullback.
“His first day was (June 27),’’ Glynn Molinich said. “He’s living in my basement.”
As far as walk-ons go, they have to start someplace.