Walk-on football players pay their way, producing for teams around the Big Ten

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Joe Taylor may not be a name you know on Michigan's football roster.

The second-ranked Wolverines, though, know well the contributions made by the walk-on and many other players that pay for their own tuition, room, board and books.

“It’s hard to put a value on that,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Priceless. Invaluable to the team when you start saying the names, the Joe Taylor’s, the Jake Thaw’s.”

Taylor, a junior from Chelsea, Michigan, was the Wolverines' special teams player of the week after a 49-0 win over Michigan State last month. Thaw, a senior from Westport, Connecticut, leads the team with 12 punt returns for 99 yards.

“They put in the same amount of work that we do,” quarterback J.J. McCarthy said. “They’re great guys who are going to be Fortune 500 CEOs someday.”

The 5-foot-10, 191-pound Taylor led the team with six tackles on special teams last season. This year, the fourth-string wide receiver plays on kickoffs and punts.

“On our kickoff team, there are a handful of walk-ons,” Taylor said. "Coach Harbaugh and everyone here does a great job of making everyone feel like they're part of the team whether they're a walk-on or on scholarship."

Sometimes, walk-ons produce enough to earn a scholarship as happened with junior tight end Max Bredeson with the Wolverines.

Minnesota, under coach P.J. Fleck, has consistently come up with creative ways to award scholarships to walk-on players, including linebacker and special teams standout Derik LeCaptain two years ago.

Wisconsin linebacker Tatum Grass enrolled as a walk-on, and was placed on scholarship last year. Nebraska’s Alex Bullock was awarded a scholarship in fall camp and he’s among the team’s top receivers.

The Gophers' former walk-on contributors include third-year sophomore running back Jordan Nubin, senior kicker Dragan Kesich, and third-year sophomore wide receiver Quentin Redding.

Nubin, recruited as a safety, rushed for 204 yards against Michigan State in his first career start and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. Kesich leads the Big Ten with 16 field goals made. Redding is the primary punt returner and kickoff returner.

Nebraska is considered the birthplace of walk-ons in college football, starting with coach Bob Devaney’s teams in the 1960s. Traditionally, Nebraska walk-ons were from small, rural towns who served as practice meat on rosters numbering close to 200 players.

The tradition remained strong under Tom Osborne and Frank Solich. When Bill Callahan took over in 2004, he didn’t have much interest in walk-ons, preferring to operate with smaller numbers.

Walk-ons made a comeback with the Cornhuskers under Bo Pelini, Mike Riley and Scott Frost. New coach Matt Rhule, a walk-on himself at Penn State in the 1990s, has fully embraced the tradition since taking over with players such as defensive end James Williams.


AP Sports Writers Eric Olson, Dave Campbell and Steve Megargee contributed. Get alerts on the latest AP Top 25 poll throughout the season. Sign up here.


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