The Mack Brown era featured a few impact walk-ons: kicker Ryan Bailey converted clutch kicks and went on to convert 25 of 30 field goals in his Longhorn career, Michael Ungar was a special teams coverage standout and Marcus Griffin walked on to join his brother Michael and eventually became a starter, amassing 6 interceptions and 200+ tackles in his career.
However, no one would accuse the Brown regime of creating 1980s Nebraska, mining the state for untapped talent that would do anything to play for the flagship. Brown didn't need to - at least so long as good, motivated players kept pouring into Austin and received some level of development and coaching. But when that stopped?
Unfortunately, as with most things under Mack Brown, the walk-on system, instead of yielding occasional gems, degraded - not for lack of long-term developmental talent, but because quality walk-ons began to feel that they weren't being given a legitimate opportunity against more marginal scholarship players who were going through the motions, had terrible habits and were coasting through their four years in Austin. The staff played favorites - not only within the pool of scholarship players, but with respect to scholarship players vs. walk ons.
The reason? Recruiting and perception. Surprised? Probably not.
Brown and some on his staff (although there were dissenters) felt that putting a walk-on in front of a scholarship player was a sufficient insult such that it would alienate the player, jeopardize future relationships and pipelines, anger parents and communities and diminish the "special status" of scholarship players across the board.
Of course, this is absolutely insane. The players know who the players are. Football is a rough meritocracy. A walk-on who is kicking a scholarship player's ass isn't a problem. He's an opportunity. To motivate, get rid of, or re-evaluate the scholarship player and elevate and develop the walk-on beyond scout team status to see if he's actually an untapped resource.
While the recruiting stars indisputably matter in the macro, there are exceptions in the micro. Not all developmental schedules happen on the same timeline. Ask Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen - former scrubs and ballboys turned NBA Legends by virtue of a simple growth spurt.
The Strong regime, as you may guess, has a different mindset. Do you think a head coach who was a former walk-on himself may contribute to that? Walk-ons compete with scholarship players. The best man wins the job. If the scholarship players have their tender feelings hurt while learning how life works, they can get better or leave. If their community is upset, that's probably a community to avoid in the future.
It's not a surprise then, that two walk-ons have emerged by virtue of their own development and hard work and an uncertain depth chart riddled with dismissals and injuries. Both have similar backgrounds (average-size with multi-sport backgrounds and good general athletic ability instead of big SPARQ scores playing in marginalized leagues) and each has shown that the Strong regime values discipline, hard work and on-field performance over anointed status.
Safety Dylan Haines debuted in the 2014 Spring game running with the 1st and 2nd string defense and collected an interception and a couple of solid tackles. This was shocking to all of us, but most explained it away as a function of injuries in the secondary. Or the coaches sending a message. Mack Brown had trained us well. Dylan Haines is still running with the 1s and 2s because that's where he deserves to be.
Wide receiver Ty Templin, though not as publicized as Haines, is making his own splash in practice. He was a dominant two way player at Trinity Valley HS, but his senior year was cut short after six games with a broken jaw. He still amassed 564 yards and 8 tds receiving along with 41 tackles, but weak competition and a curtailed senior year doesn't tend to yield major interest. Right now, he's getting serious reps at the slot position because David Ash can count on him, he catches everything and he's good at reading coverages. Perhaps he's a situational player or simply a goad for others, but even then he's a tremendous asset acquired for free.
Is it ideal that either walk-on is a potential starter? No. Florida State probably didn't start many walk-ons last year. But when you're running a real football program, the first rule of the jungle that every player must understand is that competition matters and the best man plays.
Even the ones you have for free.
This isn't free. But the best Longhorn and Big 12 preview available is worth it for only $9.99.