Asmussen on Illinois football | Walk this way

Asmussen on Illinois football | Walk this way

On the football field, you can't tell the scholarship players from the walk-ons. They wear the same uniforms and are treated alike.

Mistakes are mistakes, no matter who pays for tuition. And praise isn't limited to the guys on full rides.

Each school can have up to 85 players on scholarship at one time. The roster gets filled out by walk-ons, some recruited (preferred) and others who just show up and ask for a chance.

Illinois coach Lovie Smith wants to build the walk-on program.

For good reason.

Beyond the obvious chance to find help for the team, there is also great value in having motivated players working hard in practice on the scout team. Those are the unsung guys who mirror the style of an upcoming opponent.

It's a thankless job. The rewards are sometimes hard to figure out. There is a physical toll and the realization that what you do Tuesday and Wednesday won't get you any time on the field Saturday.

The Illinois coach plans to reward the walk-ons. Entering his third season, Smith has given out scholarships to four walk-ons. With more to follow.

The latest recipients were linebacker Jimmy Marchese and tight end Bobby Walker.

"It is big for a couple of different reasons," Smith said. "First off, they both have paid their own way and contributed a lot to our program. We want guys to see you can come here a little bit different way and have an opportunity to earn a scholarship. Hopefully, we can continue to do that."

Early present

Marchese found out on Christmas Day. Funny story. Marchese was at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City when Smith called and left a message.

"It was a good, little celebration," Marchese said. "It meant a ton. It's not something that was the end-all goal for me. But definitely an accomplishment I wanted to achieve."

Yes, Marchese was thrilled. And so were his parents, John and Julie. Nice to not have to send the school a big check.

"It's great for my parents," Marchese said. "I can't thank them enough for everything they've done for me. To give them a little bit of relief, that's all I can really do."

He is part of a football family. Dad played at Iowa. So does his younger brother Henry. Older brother Joe played at Maryland and younger brother Michael is an Illini defensive back.

Grand plans

Marchese is thinking big for Illinois football.

"I want to win a Big Ten championship," Marchese said. "That's why I came to the Big Ten. I want to play in the Rose Bowl. That's been my dream since I was a kid."

Walker has two siblings attending Illinois. His parents, Robert and Anne, appreciate the help.

Being put on scholarship is great for the wallet, but won't make a difference in the way Walker does his work.

"Everybody is equal on the field," Walker said. "The talent shows and whoever can do their job the best shows."

Walker played for Illini great John Holecek at Loyola Academy. Holecek encouraged Walker to pick Illinois and try to play football.

"It was my decision the whole way," Walker said. "I was so happy to be here. Going in as a walk-on, you never know what's going to happen."

Walk-ons are underdogs. They arrive with little fanfare or expectations.

"You don't have the media heat on your back," Walker said. "You don't have to worry about interviews.

"And it gives you time to develop. You're not under pressure. You know you are going to have to redshirt and you know you're going to have to work hard in the weight room."

Walker says the more walk-ons, the merrier.

"It adds depth to our roster and it adds a great personality to our team," Walker said. "Whenever you think of walk-ons, you think of hard-nosed guys who are always going to work hard. That always benefits any program because it keeps the scholarship guys working hard."

Role models

There are all sorts of examples of walk-ons who became top college players. And NFL stars.

The list grows by the year.

In the Big Ten, Wisconsin seems particularly good at developing overlooked players. Maybe Madison is the college football version of the "Island of Misfit Toys."

The best example is NFL superstar J.J, Watt, who originally went to play tight end at Central Michigan. Watt switched to Wisconsin, where he walked on. Good move.

He became a three-tme NFL defensive MVP with the Texans. He has also made a mark off the field, raising more than $37 million for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Steelers receiver Antonio Brown walked on at Central Michigan, where he starred as a returner and catching passes. He left a year early for the NFL and the league hasn't been the same since. Brown is a six-time Pro Bowler (so far) and led the league in receiving yards in 2017. The former walk-on might keep walking to Canton.

Cornerback Josh Norman, who signed a monster contract with the Redskins in 2016, had no scholarship offers out of high school and was a Coastal Carolina walk-on. He was drafted in the fifth round and became an All-Pro.

Illinois has a history of walk-on success. In recent years, Clayton Fejedelem went from nonscholarship player to NFL draft pick. He led the Big Ten in tackles his senior season.

"Clayton was an absolute beast," Walker said.

Now, he's cashing checks with the Bengals.

"It shows the power of hard work," Walker said. "A guy like Clayton kept working, kept working, kept working. That rock finally broke, he got a shot and made the most of it."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.