NCSA: What is a preferred walk-on?

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. Kyle Winters was a standout high school pitcher who tossed seven scoreless innings in a major tournament during his senior year. That performance against some heavy-hitting future MLB draft picks helped Kyle earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. However, Kyle opted to play professional baseball and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round and played seven seasons for various minor league teams. Kyle 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.

Many athletes daydream of walking on to their favorite college team and on to future glory. It’s the ultimate underdog story. In fact, NFL stars J.J. Watt and Clay Matthews got their feet wet as preferred walk-ons at Wisconsin and Southern California, respectively. Feel overlooked or under-recruited by coaches? Bet on yourself as a college walk-on.

As student-athletes and their families navigate the recruiting process, they must often choose between scholarship offers and walk-on opportunities. Should you accept that D2 scholarship offer with guaranteed playing time? Or should you chase after a higher level of competition as a D1 walk-on? Before you make the call, here are some key things to know about the world of college walk-ons.

What is a preferred walk-on?

Preferred walk-ons are guaranteed a spot on the roster. Their preferred status means the college coach wants the recruit on their team, but the coach doesn’t have a scholarship for them. In football, this is a common way to recruit specialist positions like kickers and punters.

While preferred walk-ons don’t receive an athletic scholarship, they still go through the recruiting process. When a spot opens up on the depth chart, preferred walk-ons are often first in line. Preferred walk-ons can earn a scholarship going into their second season, but nothing is a sure thing.

Read more: What are the different types of offers I could get?

What is a recruited walk-on?

While recruited walk-ons receive recruiting interest from a coach, they still have to win their roster spot during a tryout or summer training camp. Recruited walk-ons don’t get financial assistance and aren’t guaranteed to make the team. However, they are on the coach’s radar and have a chance to compete for a scholarship.

Read more: The walk-on route–a risk worth taking?

What is an unrecruited walk-on?

Unrecruited walk-ons participate in an open tryout for a chance to make the roster. In most cases, the student-athlete qualifies for admission to the school and communicates with the coach before the tryout. Like preferred and recruited walk-ons, unrecruited walk-ons don’t receive any financial assistance. However, they can earn a scholarship down the line.

Do walk-ons get scholarships?

The NCAA does not allow schools to provide written promises of scholarships to walk-ons. While some student-athletes eventually earn a partial or full-ride scholarship after starting out as a walk-on, others compete for their entire college careers without receiving financial assistance.

Read more: Athletic scholarships: Everything you need to know

How many walk-ons are there?

Thousands. Many Division 1 sports, including football, basketball, tennis, gymnastics and volleyball, restrict the number of athletes that can be on a scholarship. After all the scholarships are offered, the remaining spots are for walk-ons. While the NCAA doesn’t compile specific data on walk-ons, the average Division 1 FBS roster has 118 football players with a scholarship limit of 85 per team. This means over 30 walk-ons per roster. In many cases, coaches extend walk-on offers to late bloomers once they’ve used up their scholarships and finalized their recruiting classes.

Do preferred walk-ons sign on National Signing Day?

Since preferred walk-ons don’t receive an athletic scholarship, they don’t have anything to sign. However, walk-ons are an important part of any college team and accepting a preferred walk-on offer is worth celebrating. Ask your future coach about having something to sign and rep your new team with school gear.

Should I accept a walk-on offer?

As you communicate with coaches and evaluate schools, there are many athletic, academic and financial factors to consider. Some student-athletes turn down scholarship offers to compete for their dream program as a preferred walk-on. Others can’t afford to pass up a scholarship from a smaller school.

Think you’ve got what it takes to succeed as a college walk-on? Treat every practice like a tryout. With the risk of getting cut looming over their heads, college walk-ons need to give 100% during every workout, practice, scrimmage and game. Student-athletes who embrace the underdog mentality and work extremely hard can earn playing time and win the respect of the coach. After all, coaches love competitors.

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