Life of a walk-on: MTSU football players share the challenges of their roles

By Jimmie Covington, Studio M staff // 

Courtesy MTSU Sidelines

Year after year, college football coaches recruit players from all over the country. Football bowl subdivision schools such as Alabama, Florida and even MTSU 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 where the walk-ons come in.

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, a la Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield or Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, but their struggles often go untold.

I was able to catch up with three current MTSU walk-on football players:

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.” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said he participated in a MTSU football camp during the summers before his junior and senior seasons which helped him gain some familiarity with Coach Rick Stockstill. His performance is those camps and familiarity with the coach led to him being offered a roster spot as a walk-on.

“I have chip on my shoulder from being told what I couldn’t do and how I was small,” he said. You often hear the cliche that size doesn’t matter, but in football recruiting, it can be the difference between offered at Alabama and a small community college. Not everyone can play in the NFL, so players often need a plan after college.

“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 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. For all that hardware and the numbers, surely be enough to get a 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. In Burke’s case, he missed senior season. Although MTSU showed interest and wanted Burke on the roster, he was not given a scholarship and was allowed to walk-on.

As a freshman, Burke took a redshirt year 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,” he 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 highschool. … Nobody offered me.”

Burke said he hasn’t his lack of opportunity and playing time discourage him.

“The closest I came to quitting is I almost transferred, but I still wanted to play football. It gets hard sometimes not playing,” said Burke. As far as his plans after football, Burse definitely plans to stay around sports. He said he would more than likely want 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 if 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  Liberal Studies and what he wanted to do outside of football.

“Even at my high school, I wasn’t ‘the man’ … I’ve never been the most talented guy on the team, but I’ve always been one of the most hard-working guys on the team,” Dupree said. “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. My parents have alway ingrained in me whether it be athletically or academically, when you start something you finish, and you finish strong,” he said. “Also, just being told so many times that ‘you can’t do this, you’re not good enough, you’re not big enough, you’re not strong enough’… I let it sit in the back of my mind,” he added. “I have something to prove, and God didn’t open up this door for nothing. There’s a reason why I’m on his 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. You have practice, you have workouts, and I have extracurricular things going on as well,” said Dupree.

Just like Mitchell and Burke, Dupree touched on wanting to quit.

“I’ve wanted to quit. 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,” said Dupree.

When Xavier graduates, he want 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,” said Dupree.

Jimmie Covington is a journalism student at Middle Tennessee State University.

Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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