More local football players opting to be preferred walk-ons

Times have changed since 1975, when current Dacula head football coach Kevin Maloof was a walk-on football player at Georgia Tech.

The term "preferred walk-on" certainly wasn't in use back then, when Maloof finished up his prep career at St. Pius. He made the Yellow Jackets' program as a strong safety, but there were no guaranteed spots.

"I don't know when that term, preferred walk-on, came about," Maloof said on Wednesday, National Signing Day for high school football players going to college on scholarships. "I know it wasn't around when I was a walk-on at Tech. I had to beg to go.

"Now in some guys' cases, they get to come in (to college) on the first day when everybody reports, and to have an opportunity to have everything a scholarship athlete has."

Those cases are football players who are essentially asked to join college teams as walk-ons. High-level, Division I-A programs don't have a scholarship spot for them, but they think enough of their abilities to guarantee a walk-on spot with the team.

Those players, commonly known as preferred walk-ons, report in August like the scholarship players and are afforded almost the same luxuries provided to the guys on scholarship. The main difference is their tuition and housing expenses aren't paid.

Current UGA kicker Brandon Coutu, a Collins Hill grad, was a preferred walk-on when he arrived in Athens. Now he is on scholarship and is considered one of the top kickers in the country.

More and more Gwinnett players are choosing to go the preferred walk-on route. As of Wednesday's signing day, Norcross' Luke Snider, Dacula's Josh Warren and Duluth's Iain Vance had decided to take that path at Georgia Tech, while Collins Hill's Kevin Morrison and Duluth's John Ruskell planned on being preferred walk-ons at Georgia.

"Because of (NCAA) restrictions, guys like Kevin count toward (colleges') total of 105 (players) in the fall," Collins Hill head coach Larry Sherrill said. "As many guys as they want can come in for the winter and spring practices, bust their butt and see if they can make the team. But it's an honor for guys like Kevin when a school accepts them as a walk-on in the fall."

Invited walk-on is probably the most accurate way to describe a preferred walk-on in football. Rather than showing up and trying out, the colleges actively talk to these players and ask them to join the program as a walk-on.

"I've already made the team, which I thought was very important," Snider said. "I know I'll still have to work my butt off. But I'd have to do that anyway if I went somewhere on scholarship."

The Gwinnett players going as preferred walk-ons have a variety of reasons for choosing the Division I-A programs, and the chance to play big-time college football is certainly a reason. So is location.

Rather than travel far away to a smaller program, they can join many of their friends and attend a big state school, like Georgia or Georgia Tech. And they get to play football.

"A big part of it was the Tech education, the degree," Warren said. "Location, for me, was a big thing. Being able to stay at home and maybe one day playing on TV."

The preferred walk-ons are typically athletes with other options. Warren could have pursued scholarship offers at Division I-A Air Force or I-AA power New Hampshire, but both were far away. Snider and others had plenty of I-AA interest, too.

Morrison thought about playing football at Navy, but decided he wasn't ready for the military lifestyle. So he chose to be a Bulldog preferred walk-on after Georgia assistant coach Mike Bobo extended that offer to Sherrill, Morrison's coach.

Now Morrison will get a Georgia education, which he hopes leads him to the Medical College of Georgia and a career as a doctor.

"I really wanted something close to home," Morrison said. "And the prestige of going to the University of Georgia was important, too."

Many colleges also require higher academic standards of its preferred walk-ons than its scholarship signees.

The Gwinnett players going to Georgia and Georgia Tech are all good students with grade-point averages of 3.5 or higher, so they can take advantage of the HOPE Scholarship to pay for tuition and other expenses.

Those grades, coupled with their potential in football, give them a chance to join a high-level program close to home. Even if no scholarship is attached.

"I think today's kids are a little bit smarter than we give them credit for," Maloof said. "Josh wanted a great education and he'll get it at Tech. Family is very important to Josh, so Air Force wasn't the right fit because of location.

"Now his family can watch him play and he can be closer to his sisters. He's very close to them."