In 2007, a tight end for Central Michigan nabbed eight catches for 77 yards over the course of 14 games. Unhappy with his situation, he decided to walk-on at Wisconsin and switched over to defensive end.
Two seasons later, after he amassed 106 total tackles, 11.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles, J.J. Watt was the number 11 overall pick of the Houston Texans in the 2011 NFL draft. He was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, and already has 8.5 sacks and has pretty much wrapped up another DPoY, if not the first defensive NFL MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986, after nine games so far this season.
Harkening back to his days in the Mid-American Conference, Watt even has a one-yard TD reception this season.
Watt isn’t the only former college walk-on making big contributions to the NFL. Jordy Nelson, Clay Matthews, Logan Mankins, and Dennis Pitta are all former walk-ons that are now big-time NFL studs.
Over in Manhattan, Kansas, the Kansas State Wildcats know all about the tremendous impact walk-ons can have on a program.
Three of K-State’s current senior captains walked onto the squad. Center B.J. Finney, defensive end Ryan Mueller, and linebacker Jonathan Truman are all huge reasons why the Wildcats find themselves in the thick of the playoff race as they prepare for a huge matchup against TCU this weekend.
Weak-side linebacker Truman is the epitome of the axiom, “Hard work pays off.” Upon entering the program, he earned a reputation as an animal in the weight room, and earned himself a spot on special teams as a result. Last season he burst into the starting lineup, garnering 89 tackles and two forced fumbles. The 5-11, 219-pound beast already has 73 tackles this season through just eight games – 46 of which are solo.
Back in August, head coach Bill Synder spoke to Truman’s dedication and work ethic. “It’s the quality of character and the value system that Jonathan possesses that is so valuable. He is a bright young guy. His journey has been one of hard work and doing things right.”
This isn’t the first time Synder has taken a walk-on and helped him develop into a big-time player.
Struggling to find playing time at strong safety, Jordy Nelson moved to wide receiver for the Wildcats in 2005. All he did was become a Consensus All-American his senior year and finish his career with the second most receptions in school history (206) while hauling in 20 touchdowns. He also threw for two scores and added another three on special teams as a punt and kick returner. Nelson was drafted in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers and serves as a role model today for walk-ons everywhere, especially those at K-State.
Along with the dominating weak-side linebacker, Truman’s fellow walk-on senior captains include the anchor of the offense, preseason All-American center BJ Finney, and defensive end Ryan Mueller.
Coming out of high school, schools like Missouri State passed on Mueller. Under the tutelage of Snyder and his staff, Mueller tied the Wildcats’ single-season sack record with 11.5 in 2013 to earn Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year honors.
Now a senior on scholarship, Mueller told CBS Sports earlier this year, “College football does a great job of filtering out the weak-minded. I thought, I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can to get that scholarship. OK, now I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can to get to No. 2 on the depth chart. Now I’m going to work has hard as I possibly can to get to No. 1.”
Perhaps Snyder knows something other coaches simply do not. Seven former Kansas State walk-ons have gone on to play in the NFL.
This season fifty-eight Wildcats – nearly half the roster – are current or former walk-ons. The college football news cycle is so often dominated by recruiting scandals, NCAA violations, and mixed definitions of what is and is not a “booster.” Perhaps more college coaches should adapt coach Snyder’s walk-on philosophy.
You never know who’s out there, working out in the student gym, running on the track, sitting in class, wondering if he could play on Saturdays.