Hearing his name called out in front of the team by his head coach gave Casey Hybarger a brief rush of anxiety.
During one of the final days of the Tenn-Chattanooga’s preseason camp, coach Russ Huesman stood in front of the team and asked Hybarger, a junior offensive lineman, to step forward.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Hybarger said.
“I thought I had done something wrong in practice or was in trouble for something. I couldn’t think of anything, but it must have been really bad if I was having to stand in front of the whole team.”
Instead Huesman acknowledged Hybarger’s four years with the Mocs, making special note of the former Walker Valley star’s grit during practice and how he had worked hard since joining the team as a walk-on. Huesman then announced to Hybarger, and the team, that he was rewarding those years of work by putting him on scholarship.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was hoping they weren’t joking with me,” Hybarger, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound two-year letterman who has come off the bench to play in three games in his career, said. “As a walk-on, we were told coming out of high school that we weren’t tall enough or fast enough or whatever reason we weren’t offered a scholarship by anybody.
“But we still believe we can play and we love the game so much that we’re willing to play it for free. So to earn a scholarship means the world to me. I believe I’ve worked hard, and that day I felt like I had finally proven myself here.”
With the scholarship limitations at the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision level — FCS teams are allowed 63 scholarship players, FBS programs are allotted 85– finding walk-on players who can become contributors on the field is an important factor in having a successful team. The chance for a non-scholarship player to earn playing time is much greater at the FCS level than at FBS programs.
Nearly a third of UTC’s roster (27 of 91 players) are current or former walk-ons, with eight of those now either starting or at least in the two-deep playing rotation.
“When I got the job here I went back to my days coaching at William & Mary,” Huesman said. “They were huge into walk-ons, and that’s where I learned to recruit them and treat them right. The way we look at it, say you bring in 10 walk-ons a year, if two of those pan out, then in five years you’ve got 10 extra players that you wouldn’t have had in your program.
“It takes a little bit of extra work to evaluate them and find the ones who can help your team down the road. We all make mistakes, at every level, and have kids that just don’t pan out like we thought. At our level we don’t have anywhere to send those kids, so you live with those mistakes as long as they’re good kids and competing, but the walk-ons can fill that void.”
Proximity to home and more affordable tuition for in-state players typically mean UTC draws its walk-on players from a pool of Tennessee talent. All but two of the 27 players who joined the program as walk-ons are from Tennessee high schools.
The most notable current player who came to the Mocs as a walk-on is defensive end Davis Tull, who not only earned a scholarship but has become a two-time Southern Conference defensive player of the year and an All-American.
Like Hybarger and Tull, linebacker A.J. Hampton has earned his way to a scholarship and is a key player on a Mocs defense that ranks No. 1 in the SoCon in nearly every statistical category. The junior came to UTC from Nashville’s Hume-Fogg High School and has come off the bench to play in 27 games, making a career-high eight tackles and one for loss against Jacksonville State earlier this year.
“It’s tough when you don’t get an offer coming out of high school,” Hampton said. “But once I joined the program here I came in wanting to prove myself and eventually earn a scholarship. I think most walk-on players have more of a chip on their shoulder and try to prove we can still play.”
UTC’s staff has a couple of different avenues that players can take to become a walk-on. The first is for the guys who were recruited in high school but for whatever reason were not offered a scholarship by signing day. Those are considered “priority recruits” and asked to join the program as preferred walk-ons. Also, each January coaches hold an open tryout for players whose grade point average is in good standing, with the best of those kept.
There is no guarantee of playing time or that they will ever earn a scholarship, but for walk-ons, the most significant lure is the opportunity to continue playing or to be a part of the game a little longer.
“All we can promise is that we will treat you fairly,” Huesman said. “The only thing I ask is to give it a year. If you stick with it for a year or so, you’ll probably have a chance to help on special teams or work your way into some playing time.”
Soon after Hybarger was told he would be given a scholarship, UTC offensive line coach Chris Malone brought the paperwork into an offensive position meeting. Complete with a Mocs hat and applause after he signed, Hybarger got to experience what he had missed on national signing day years before.
“For a walk-on it’s tough. You know the eyes are on you and you have no room to make mistakes,” Hybarger said. “It’s difficult because you never know if you’ll ever get that chance to play again. I was going to stay here no matter what because my parents taught me to never give up on anything.
“But that was a really cool experience. It made all the hard work and sticking with it worth it.”