Here are 14 of the most successful walk-ons from the BCS era (1998-2014) to present. Some have won the Burlsworth Trophy, which is awarded to the best college football player who began as a walk-on.
Here’s the TL/DR version:
- Baker Mayfield — Texas Tech, Oklahoma
- Luke Falk — Washington State
- Matt McGloin — Penn State
- Austin Davis — Southern Mississippi
- Hunter Renfrow — Clemson
- Justin Hardy — Eastern Carolina
- Jared Abbrederis — Wisconsin
- Sean Bedford — Georgia Tech
- J.J. Watt — Wisconsin
- Clay Matthews — USC
- Jim Leonhard — Wisconsin
- Rodrigo Blankenship — Georgia
- Stephen Gostkowski — Memphis
- Kenny Willekes — Michigan State
MOST NATIONAL TITLES: College football teams with the most national championships
Usually walk-ons fly under the radar. But since the inception of the Burlsworth Trophy, more notoriety is given to college football’s walk-ons. None has been more popular than the 2015 and 2016 Burlsworth Trophy winner: Baker Mayfield. The 2018 NFL Draft’s first overall pick began his career as a second-string quarterback at Texas Tech. He forgoed scholarship offers from Washington State, Rice, New Mexico and Florida Atlantic to walk-on at Texas Tech.
Before the beginning of the 2013 season the Red Raiders’ projected starter, Michael Brewer, was out with an injury. Mayfield, a freshman at the time, took the baton and ran away with it. In the first game of the season, he passed for 413 yards and four touchdowns against Southern Methodist University. He broke a school record held by Billy Joe Tolliver, completing 43-of-60 attempted passes. He’s thought to be the first walk-on true freshman in FBS history to start the first game of the regular season.
“I easily could’ve gone to a place like Florida Atlantic, but my dad pushed me to realize that my dream was to play somewhere big,” Mayfield told ESPN in 2016. “He was right.”
After the 2013 season, he enrolled at Oklahoma and walked on for the Sooners. Winning the starting role in 2015 led to a Heisman-caliber season. He finished fourth in Heisman voting with 3,700 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Oklahoma reached the College Football Playoff but lost 37-17 to Clemson.
His time for the national stage was here. In 2017, Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy with 86% of the vote after completing 285-of-404 attempted passes for 4,627 yards, 43 touchdowns and six interceptions. He led the Sooners to another CFP semifinal, but lost 54-48 to Georgia.
The next man up sometimes happens after a teammate’s injury. Luke Falk found himself in that scenario in 2014 after Washington State’s Connor Halliday fell to an injury. A walk-on in 2013, Falk became the backup quarterback in 2014, and started the final three games of the season.
In his first career start, he captured the spotlight, throwing for 471 yards and five touchdowns and earning Pac-12 offensive player and national quarterback of the week honors. Named the starter in 2015, he guided the Cougars to a 9-4 record with a Sun Bowl 20-14 win over Miami. His numbers were outstanding that season, leading the nation in passing yards per game (380.5) and coming in second in the nation in pass completion percentage (69.45) with first team All-Pac-12 honors.
A week before Falk was awarded the 2017 Burlsworth Trophy, he became the all-time record holder for touchdown passes in Pac-12 history, surpassing Southern California’s Matt Barkley.
Matt McGloin began the 2010 season as the third-string quarterback and found game time against Minnesota after starter Rob Bolden suffered a concussion and backup Kevin Newsome fell to illness. After previous losses to Illinois and Iowa, McGloin threw two touchdowns in the Nittany Lions’ first victory over a Big Ten team that season. Seven days later, he made his first start and passed for 250 yards and one touchdown in a win over Michigan.
Bolden healed up for the following game against Northwestern, so coach Joe Paterno started him. Two sacks and a fumble forced McGloin into the game, and he rallied from a 21-point deficit to win Paterno’s 400th career victory. A little over a week later, McGloin was named the starter, and finished the season with 1,548 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
McGloin would trade starts with Bolden in 2011, but gained the trust of new head coach Bill O’Brien to become the starting quarterback. He recorded a single-season school record for most passing yards (3,271), breaking Daryll Clark’s 3,003 yards set in 2009. He led the Big Ten with 270 completions (a school record), 446 attempts, 3,271 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Later that year, he won the 2012 Burlsworth Trophy.
A day in the life of a former football walk-on? How about Austin Davis? The former walk-on quarterback at Southern Mississippi casually surpassed Hall of Famer Brett Favre’s school passing touchdown record and yardage record. His final stats: completing 933-of-1,527 passes (61.1 percent) for 10,892 yards and 83 touchdowns against 27 interceptions. On the ground, he rushed for 1,375 yards and 25 touchdowns. He nearly broke every passing record in Southern Miss’ history and led the Golden Eagles to a 12-2 record and No. 20 AP ranking in 2011, his senior season.
Only one school offered Davis a football scholarship out of high school, Southeastern Louisiana. Southern Miss offered him a baseball scholarship and used the alternate sport as a vehicle to become one of Southern Miss’ greatest football players of all-time. Shortly before the end of his college career, he accepted the second annual Burlsworth Trophy.
He spent seven years in the NFL as a backup quarterback.
Renfrow’s mother and brother attended Clemson and the dream of following in their footsteps was deeply sought after. With offers from Appalachian State, Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian and Wofford, he declined the only football and baseball offers he had, which were of FCS affiliation, and walked on at Clemson. His 5-foot-10 and 155-pound frame deterred other suitors, but by redshirting his freshman season, he gained 26 pounds and earned the scholarship he so desired.
Renfrow started 10 of the 13 games as a redshirt freshman and caught passes for 492 yards and five touchdowns. One year later, he scored two touchdowns in the 2016 CFP National Championship, though the Tigers fell 45-40 to Alabama.
The fairy tale didn’t stop there. He went on to catch the game-winning touchdown in the 2017 CFP National Championship. By December 2018, he earned the Burlsworth Trophy, one month before he and the Tigers scorched Alabama 44-16 for the program’s third national title and second in three years.
The Oakland Raiders saw a potential future in the wide receiver and drafted him in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
The Burlsworth Trophy’s 2014 winner is one of the greatest receivers to ever play in the NCAA. Hardy formerly held the league’s all-time reception record after initially walking on at Eastern Carolina in 2010. He earned a scholarship in 2011 and started eight games that year, recording 64 receptions — a freshman school record — for 658 yards and six touchdowns. He upped the ante the next season with 88 receptions for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns and was named to the All-Conference USA first team. As a redshirt junior, he racked up 114 receptions and 1,284 receiving yards.
In the first game of his senior season, Hardy broke East Carolina’s career receptions record held by Dwayne Harris (268). Three months later, he passed Ryan Broyles (349) to become the NCAA’s all-time receptions leader (387). Former teammate Zay Jones overtook him in 2016 with 399 career receptions.
Hardy ended his college career with 387 receptions for 4,541 yards and 35 touchdowns.
One of the greatest receivers and kickoff returners in WIsconsin history was a walk-on in 2009. Jared Abbrederis started two games in 2010 and all 14 games in 2011, finishing the season with the nation’s third-best punt return average — 15.8 yards per put return. The Wisconsin native led the team that season with 933 receiving yards. Three years after first walking on, he earned an athletic scholarship and later was named consensus first team All-Big Ten in 2012.
Abbrederis finished his college career tied with Brandon Williams (2002-05) for the Badgers’ all-time reception record (202), highest career average per kickoff return (25.8), most receptions in a season (78) and most kickoff return yards in a game (201).
The NFL came calling and he answered. His dream team, the Green Bay Packers, selected him in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and he spent two of his three professional years at Lambeau Field.
On and off the field, Sean Bedford had it all. At least by the end of his college career, he did. He was sought after by Ivy League schools, but Georgia Tech’s engineering program caught his eye and the ability to walk on the football team was an attractive option. So Bedford got the (close to) best of both worlds at Tech. It would be three years until he secured the starting center role.
The persistence was worth it when both worlds collided in 2009. After a year of being the primary center backup and another a part of the scout team, he finally received an athletic scholarship. And in 2010, he and the Yellow Jackets’ offensive line enabled a rushing offense that ranked No. 1 in the FBS. Being named to the first team All-ACC followed and so did the Burlsworth Trophy. He became the first recipient of the award.
“Sean is a great story, and a good example of what a young person can do if they set goals and work hard to reach those goals,” said then-Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson on Bedford earning the award.
J.J. Watt had an idea of what type of player he wanted to be before enrolling at Central Michigan. The Chippewas offered him a scholarship to play tight end, but he knew his role on the team did not equate to what he hoped to be. So he decided to forego his starting role to become a defensive end walk-on at Wisconsin. The position fit his skillset and personality better. He ended his career as a Badger with 106 tackles (74 solo, 32 assisted), 36.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. As a redshirt junior in 2010, he earned the Ronnie Lott Trophy, awarded to the best defensive player on and off the field, and was selected to the All-Big Ten first team.
He continues to amp up the pressure in the NFL as a defensive end for the Houston Texans. The five-time Pro Bowler has been named defensive player of the year three times (2012, 2014, 2015) and was the NFL MVP runner-up in 2014.
Southern California’s last consecutive Pac-12 Championship run from 2006-2008 included former walk-on Clay Matthews. Winning three consecutive Special Teams Player of the Year honors in that span and being named the starting outside linebacker during his senior season highlights his college resume. Though his talent and skill led to a future NFL career, he had to patiently wait two seasons for a full athletic scholarship. He played on the scout team his freshman season, preserving his redshirt, and played few minutes with special teams in 2005.
Production spiked his senior season when he finally earned the starting linebacker role. He tallied 57 total tackles (29 solo, 28 assisted), 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. And his production on special teams only continued to skyrocket as he obtained his third consecutive Special Teams Player of the Year award — the only player in USC history to do so.
Halfway across the country, an NFL front office was taking note. The Green Bay Packers traded future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre to the New York Jets for a third-round draft pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Eventually that pick was just one of many more trades the Packers made that day in pursuit of the 26th overall selection. Matthews was the 26th overall pick that year and spent a decade with the Packers.
Sometimes patience is required far into a walk-on’s college career. For Jim Leonhard, being Wisconsin’s regular starting safety for two seasons and being named All-Big Ten first team during that span all came without an athletic scholarship. It wasn’t until his senior season in 2004 that he earned the scholarship and began nudging program records. With 21 career interceptions he tied fellow Badger Jamar Fletcher and finished his four years with 281 tackles and held the conference’s career punt return yardage with 1,347, until Michigan’s Steve Breaston past him in 2006. His 5-foot-8 stature fed doubters, but his career performance ultimately silenced them.
Leonhard’s success and effort transformed into playing time in 142 NFL games and into becoming Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator in 2017. He remains there today.
This 2019 “Hot Rod” of college football wore thick black framed glasses and trotted onto the field a handful of times every game. Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship earned national acclaim in 2018’s Rose Bowl — a CFP semifinal against Oklahoma. He stroked a career-long 55-yard field goal, which helped the Bulldogs in their eventual 54-48 overtime victory. The Marietta native took on a similar role in the national title game against Alabama. His 51-yard field goal in overtime put Georgia in line for its third national championship until the Crimson Tide surged to a 26-23 victory.
As a preferred walk-on in 2015, he redshirted and then earned a starting spot in 2016. He went on to make 14-of-18 field goals and went a perfect 26-for-26 on extra points. That year he earned All-SEC Freshman team honors and finally earned a full athletic scholarship as a redshirt sophomore.
Georgia’s reliable scorer and playmaker recorded 67 touchbacks (a school record) and made 87 percent of his field goal attempts in 2017 and scored All-SEC first team preseason honors in 2018.
In his final season with the Bulldogs, Blankenship finished third in the Burlsworth Trophy voting, before helping No. 5 Georgia defeat No. 7 Baylor in the 2020 Sugar Bowl, 26-14. He never missed an extra point during his four-year career.
The likelihood of a walk-on winning a starting role is slim, but kickers seem to be the most prolific in doing so. Like how all football careers begin, kicker Stephen Gostkowski accepted a baseball scholarship to Memphis. He ultimately scored a school record of 369 career points and converted 70-of-92 field goals and 159-of-165 extra points. As a senior in 2015, Gostkowski took over kickoff duties and used a one-inch tee instead of the NCAA recommended two-inch prop. The difference gave NFL scouts a better glimpse into his potential as an NFL kicker.
To make his senior season even more impressive, the Mississippi native recovered his own onside kick in a game against Houston. His impressions continued into his career with the New England Patriots, becoming the organization’s all-time leading scorer with 1,775 points and one of the best kickers in NFL history.
A 6-foot-4, 260 pound defensive end, Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes entered the 2019 season a preseason All-American and former Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. He concluded the season with 78 total tackles (32 solo), 10.5 sacks, two more than 2018, and two forced fumbles.
After receiving zero DI scholarship offers out of high school, Willekes was invited to walk-on at Michigan State and redshirted as a freshman in 2015. He was awarded the Burlsworth Trophy in 2019, before leading the Spartans to the Pinstripe Bowl, where they beat Wake Forest, 27-21.