Photo by Devin P. Grimes / MTSU Sidelines Archive
Story by Jimmie Covington / Contributing Writer
Year after year, college football coaches recruit players from all over the country. Football bowl subdivision, or FBS, schools such as Alabama, Florida and even Middle Tennessee State are allowed to have 85 scholarship players on the roster at any given time. With the physicality of football, injuries can ravage a roster, and sometimes the 85 scholarship players aren’t enough.
This is the vital role of the walk-on.
A walk-on is an athlete who is a part of a team without being given a scholarship or being recruited ahead of time. In college football, a walk-on initially may just be a part of the scout team until he is awarded a scholarship. There have been cases where walk-on players have become superstars, such as Cleveland Browns quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Baker Mayfield or Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, but the struggles of these athletes often go untold.
At MTSU, three walk-ons experience the same struggles that other non-scholarship athletes face across the country.
Will Mitchell (running back and wide receiver, sophomore)
Mitchell attended Bolles High School in Jacksonville, Florida. Despite a decorated career with over 3,700 all-purpose yards and 30 touchdowns, Mitchell did not receive any offers to play college football.
“I actually wanted to go to West Point to play football for the Army. I’m enrolled in the ROTC program here,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell participated in a MTSU football camp during the summers before his junior and senior seasons, which helped him gain some familiarity with Head Coach Rick Stockstill. His performance in those camps and the familiarity with Stockstill led to him being offered a roster spot as a walk-on.
“I have a chip on my shoulder from being told what I couldn’t do and how I was small,” Mitchell said.
You often hear the cliche that size doesn’t matter, but in football recruiting, it can be the difference between being offered at Alabama and a small community college. Not everyone can play in the NFL, so players often need a plan after college.
For Mitchell, his post career plans may still involve football.
“I want to possibly go into coaching,” Mitchell said. “I’m also trying to get an internship with Samaritan’s Purse or an organization like that to go live for a few months overseas.”
Mitchell redshirted during his freshman season, but this past season he totaled 64 rushing yards. With two seasons under his belt, Mitchell is looking to make a splash this season.
Peyton Burke (wide receiver, sophomore)
Burke played quarterback for Tates Creek High School in Lexington, Kentucky. As a senior, Burke passed for a school record 2,651 yards to go along with 34 touchdowns. He was also named team MVP, offensive MVP, Pikeville Bowl MVP and won the Roy Walton Award for hard work and leadership. With all that hardware and the impressive numbers, Burke thought it would be enough to get an offer to a school, but it wasn’t. Unfortunately, Burke missed all of his junior year with a torn hamstring, and the only season of production he had was from his senior season.
For quarterbacks, junior year in high school is the most important time because that’s when most coaches are giving out college offers. Although MTSU showed interest and wanted Burke on the roster, he was not given a scholarship. Instead, he was allowed to walk-on.
As a freshman, Burke was redshirted and didn’t receive any playing time.
“I just love football and then just the dream of wanting to play D-1, that pushes me,” Burke said. “I still haven’t gotten my chance yet, so that’s what really makes me want to keep going. I just want to do it to say I’ve done it, because I wasn’t given the shot out of high school. Nobody offered me.”
Burke said he hasn’t let his lack of opportunity and playing time discourage him.
“The closest I came to quitting is when I almost transferred, but I still wanted to play football. It gets hard sometimes not playing,” Burke said.
As far as his plans after football, Burke plans to stay around sports and wants to work in the football offices behind the scenes.
Xavier Dupree (wide receiver, junior)
Junior wide receiver Xavier Dupree played football at Gwinnett High School in Atlanta, Georgia. Coming out of high school, Dupree received two scholarship offers — a division two program and a division three program — but he ultimately decided to pick a university based on Liberal Studies and what he wanted to do outside of football.
“Even at my high school, I wasn’t ‘the man,'” Dupree said. “I’ve never been the most talented guy on the team, but I’ve always been one of the hardest working guys on the team. That’s what helped me get through high school.”
Despite the lack of playing time, Dupree says he remains motivated.
“My family motivates me a lot,” Dupree said. “My parents have always ingrained in me, whether it be athletically or academically, when you start something you finish and to finish strong. I have something to prove, and God didn’t open up this door for nothing. There’s a reason why I’m on this team. There’s a reason why I’m here.”
There’s so much pressure just being a regular college student, and being a football player magnifies that significantly.
“You come to school, and you have classes,” Dupree said. “You have practice, you have workouts and extracurricular things going on as well.”
Just like Mitchell and Burke, Dupree touched on wanting to quit.
“I’ve wanted to quit,” Dupree said. “Throughout the day, things happen and when you get on the football field, you’re supposed to let it all go. It gets frustrating at times, and that makes it hard to focus on the field, but my love for the game won’t let me quit.”
When Xavier graduates, he wants to be a sports analyst or sports broadcaster, but he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of playing in the NFL one day.
“If I get the opportunity to try out for a team, that’s something I would definitely do,” Dupree said.
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