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Do Walk-Ons Make a Difference?

CornBlight and I have been subscribers to Mike Nolan's Husker mailing list for years. As other internet forums and blogs have come online, the mailing list has seen a decline in activity, but we both still subscribe. However, I must admit there is one list member that I've had in my kill filter for a few years. Whether it's illformed logic or incomprehensible posts that try to get you to click on a link (much like most of the messages in my spam folder), his posts seem to be 98% (or more) noise. So my mailbox deletes them immediately. That doesn't, however, delete the sometimes I still see debates he starts. Like this weekend, when I found the following in my mailbox:

I am sure in Texas and California there a a few programs that have been pretty successful without walk-ons. I wasn't talking about the need to have a top program. I was talking about the need for walk-ons to make that happen. Does USC have a big time walk-on program?

Please tell me what the percentage of walk-ons versus scholarship players made a difference. I really believe NU would be right where it is today without walk-ons.

The short flippant answer would be: 5-7? That would probably be where Nebraska would be on a continual basis without the walk-on program.

But then the debate degrades into a discussion where it somehow becomes an issue of having 85 scholarship players, all of which are from Atkison, Tekamah, and Brainerd and a hundred walk-ons who played eight-man football. The argument becomes an either-or: either you have a roster of all-Rivals players from the other 49 states, or a roster of Nebraska boys who nobody in division 1-A wanted.

Isn't there a happy medium in there somewhere?

Four years ago, Nebraska's football program turned outside the state to focus on highly rated recruits nationwide. The walk-on program was downsized. There were numerous reasons for this: it's cheaper to administer (fewer lockers, meals, jerseys, equipment, etc.). It allows coaches to focus more on the players in the program by not spreading themselves too thin. And Nebraska went out there to get the best players that the recruiting services could find.

But it didn't work out very well for Husker football. Many of these top recruits came...and left, for whatever reason. And many players who would have walked on, are now elsewhere.

So now the walk-on program is back. Tomorrow, approximately 30 players join the roster with the start of school; so many players are arriving that they are having to remodel the locker rooms (just two years old) to accomodate the larger roster size. I'll give you a few reasons why this is a good thing for Nebraska.

1) It gives Nebraska a competitive advantage in this day of reduced scholarship numbers. 1-A teams are limited to 85 scholarships, so if you depend on the scholarship players alone, the roster will be limited to about three or four players at each position. Over the last four years, Nebraska has been forced to use many scholarship recruits on special teams to maximize the limited roster. That's how NFL teams manage rosters and integrate young players into the system. Problem is...unlike the NFL, college players only have four years of eligibility. So Bill Callahan's decision to utilize Lance Brandenburgh on special teams in 2004 means that his eligibility ended in Boulder last November. Think Nebraska couldn't use him this fall?

2) That added depth also causes surprises in the depth chart. Certainly Nebraska-Kearney didn't think enough of the Makovicka brothers to offer them a scholarship, but they've set the standard for Husker fullbacks. (Joel even went on to play 5 years in the NFL.) Now two more Makovicka's are in the program...again as walk-ons. This fall, we'll see walk-ons Todd Peterson and Tyler Wortman take on starting roles for the Big Red...

3) In David Kolowski's book "Diary of a Husker", Eric Crouch wrote a foreward explaining the importance of the walk-on program. It allowed Nebraska to run many more stations at practice, allowing for more reps for each player. More reps meant that Nebraska could be a more physical program.

4) Marketing. It's pooh-poohed to some extent, but there is pride in every town when one of their own puts on that scarlet uniform, even if it's only to stand on the sidelines and be introduced on senior day. It builds goodwill with the program, and encourages others to follow him to Nebraska. Maybe the first player isn't the surprise...but maybe the second is.

Bill Callahan didn't kill the walk-on program. He downsized it to large extent, but he didn't kill it. (Callahan's son was a walk-on quarterback for UCLA, so he believed in walk-ons...just not that many of them...) But now it's being restocked...and hopefully that's a decision that will yield benefits for Nebraska football down the line.