Last Saturday, Bobby Wilder and members of the Old Dominion football staff hosted approximately two dozen high school senior prospects who may not attend the school and won't receive a dime of athletic financial aid next year, even if they choose to come.
Likewise, in recent days at William and Mary, Tribe football staff members escorted a handful of senior prospects around campus, touring facilities and meeting with various athletic and academic officials. Those players, too, will receive no athletic aid their first year if they gain admittance and enroll.
The Tribe and ODU supplement their scholarship classes with walk-ons. Both staffs spend the days and weeks after signing day in contact with kids in whom they're interested but did not offer scholarships.
"The lifeblood of our program," ODU assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Ron Whitcomb said of walk-ons.
"We recruit them just like we recruit the scholarship kids," W&M assistant and recruiting coordinator Trevor Andrews said. "We watch film on them, we discuss them as a staff, and what we try to do is piece together the rest of the class."
Football Championship Subdivision programs are allowed a maximum of 63 scholarships, 22 fewer than Bowl Subdivision programs such as Virginia and Virginia Tech. ODU and William and Mary are allowed 95-man rosters when preseason camp starts, and a few more when the fall semester begins.
FCS programs, unlike their FBS counterparts, are allowed to divide and award partial scholarships to players. Even with some scholarship money divided, FCS programs must fill their rosters with walk-ons.
"At the I-AA level," Andrews said, using the old term for FCS programs, "you're not taking a full class of 20-some scholarship kids, so you're not taking a kid at every position. We've got to address immediate needs with the scholarships, and that's what we do.
"We let them know that, hey, maybe we would have considered them for a scholarship (out of high school) in a previous year or in a future year. But position-wise, that isn't an immediate need for us at the moment. We can't address it with scholarships this year."
The message at both programs is the same: Everyone on the roster is part of the program, regardless of scholarship status; if walk-ons earn playing time, they will earn scholarship money.
Walk-ons pay their own way, either out-of-pocket or with non-athletic scholarship funds. Both William and Mary and ODU are public institutions. The cost for in-state students at W&M — typically tuition, room, board and fees — is more than $22,000 annually, for out-of-state students more than $44,000. At ODU, in-state costs are more than $16,000 per year, out-of-state in excess of $30,000 per year.
"First, financially it's got to work out for the family," Andrews said. "We want the kids that want us. We've got to like them and they've got to like us. Once that's established, those are the guys that we go after. We want the guys that want to be here and want that challenge. If we have to talk a kid into it, generally it doesn't work out. We want guys that get it, that understand. They want the William and Mary education, and they want the William and Mary football experience."
Under longtime coach Jimmye Laycock, William and Mary has a lengthy tradition of players who excelled after starting their careers as recruited walk-ons: All-America defensive end and NFL draft pick Adrian Tracy; Payton Award winner Lang Campbell; CAA Defensive Player of the Year Jason Miller; all-conference safety Sean McDermott, among others.
"I was well aware of that, and that was one of the things that attracted me to William and Mary," said former Tribe quarterback Mike Callahan, a walk-on to whom Laycock awarded scholarship money only during his fifth and final year. "I knew the whole Lang Campbell story."
Callahan, a Mountville, Pa., native, had scholarship offers to Monmouth, Stony Brook and Albany, but instead chose to walk on at William and Mary.
"I wanted that education and that level of football," he said.
At ODU, the legacy is much shorter, obviously, but still significant. Punter Jonathan Plisco (Woodside) became an All-American after being what Monarchs' coaches call a "preferred walk-on." Offensive lineman Robbie Duncan has started for two-plus years after walking on.
Both William and Mary and ODU recruited Plisco as a targeted walk-on. He was aware of the Tribe's tradition of successful walk-ons, but chose the Monarchs in part because of the opportunity to begin a tradition rather than continue one.
W&M, ODU football recruiting continues well past Signing Day
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