Walking on without a scholarship to play college football is really hard. Several Alabama players can vouch for it. Some get playing time if they’re patient. Others aren’t as fortunate.
Levi Wallace gambled when he chose to play at Alabama. He knew coming in that walking on at the nation’s top program would be, to borrow the phrase of a former Tide coach, a tremendous challenge and a tremendous opportunity. It’s paid off for the junior defensive back from Tucson, Ariz. He said so Wednesday at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Media Day at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
“It was difficult,” Wallace said of his early days in Tuscaloosa as a student-athlete. “Alabama is the hardest team to be at, just on the team as a scholarship player. As a walk-on, you have to face a lot of adversities, because you know you’re competing with a lot of four- and five-stars. Trying to work your way up is difficult, just trying to show that you belong here with everyone else is pretty hard.”
After two years toiling in anonymity, Wallace got some great news this past summer. Coach Nick Saban awarded full athletic scholarships to him, guard Brandon Moore, tight end Truett Harris, and linebacker Jamey Mosley.
“It was a great feeling,” Wallace said. “I feel like I put a lot of hard work and time in. I was able to make my dad proud, and my family proud.”
Family is a big reason Wallace chose Bama. “My dad’s from Tuscaloosa, and he was in the military, so it was an opportunity to go back to Alabama and attend school there on the GI Bill through him.” Walter Wallace is a graduate of the old Druid High
Wallace saw spot duty as a Tider until this year’s Iron Bowl, when the man he backs up, Marlon Humphrey, had to leave the game with a leg injury. Wallace was ready.
“I was pretty nervous, but Marlon had been going through some injuries,” Wallace recalled. “I was prepared, going throughout the (Auburn) week, preparing the same way. When (Humphrey) went down, the coaches told me I was in. I got nervous because, growing up looking at the Alabama-Auburn game, I know how big it is to the people of the state, so just knowing what it means to the fans and my teammates, I just wanted to be ready and prepared. I just went in and did what I know.”
Wallace made a pair of stops against the Tigers and covered a targeted receiver forcing an incompletion in the end zone to hold Auburn to a field goal on a third quarter drive.
“(Wallace) did a really good job when he got play (against Auburn),” Humphrey said. “I actually told him before the game that he was going to have to play. I didn’t think I was going to be able to go as long as I did. I tried to get his mind prepared a little bit before the game started.
“He came in, and did a really good job. He’s really come through from being a walk-on to getting that scholarship job. He’s been able to just get better and better every year.”
When Humphrey didn’t recover, Wallace made his first career start against the Florida Gators. All that was at stake was the SEC Championship and a Playoff berth. “It was pretty exciting,” he said. “I had never started at Alabama, and just playing Auburn the week before, I would say it felt unreal.
“I felt more prepared for that game, just knowing there was a chance I would start. The coaches had a great game plan, and I just went out and performed. “He had a tackle and a quarterback hurry against the Gators.
Playing his technique is what has Wallace in the rotation, according to Humphrey. Wallace said he learned to be an SEC defensive back from “Coach (Nick) Saban, Coach (Mel) Tucker, Coach (Derrick) Ansley, they’ve been critiquing me and I just try to work at it year in and year out, especially in the off-season , competing against some of the best receivers in the country. Technique is just a thing that you have to work at.”
Ansley said, “Levi’s done a really good job. Levi’s got a really good skill set at corner. He’s very long (6-0, 170). He’s very fast. Very good feet. He’s a guy that’s been around here three years and knows the position. He can do exactly what we want him to do out there, technique-wise. He’s a competitor. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he is very tough. He’s a really good tackler, and he can come up and support the run.”
Added Defensive Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, himself a former Tide walk-on defensive back: “Levi Wallace has done really well. He’s played well on special teams, and he’s provided us depth. He played a lot of snaps against Florida.
“I know in the seven years I’ve worked for Coach Saban, we’ve always had guys that walked on and contributed. It’s important that you continue to bring those type of players in, and they know they have the opportunity to play one day.”
Another man who’s made a name for himself as a walk-on is backup running back Derrick Gore, a redshirt sophomore from Syracuse, NY.. Gore played in the first half against Auburn, but burst onto the Tide stat sheet with both a blocked punt and a fourth quarter rushing touchdown in the SEC title tilt against Florida.
“I was just living in the moment, really,” Gore said of the blocked punt that led to a 27-yard touchdown by Joshua Jacobs. “I went free, and decided to use my ‘block point’ like we practice every day.”
Then, late in the game, Gore got his first college touchdown on a 10-yard run. His memory? “Speechless,” he said. “I can’t even describe it. It was the best feeling in the world.”
Gore said the key for him in going from unheralded walk-on to meaningful contributor has been “sticking with ‘The Process.’ That, and just having faith, believing in your talent, and all the hard work you put in. Eventually, you’ll get on the field and get your chance. You have to take full advantage of it, because I’m a walk-on. I have to take full advantage of every opportunity.”
No one was happier for Gore when he came up big against the Gators than his position coach, Burton Burns. “He’s a fantastic human being,” Burns said of Gore. “He’s a guy that’s motivated to be a successful person, period. He’s had to overcome the odds. He’s not on scholarship. He’s got to pay his own way, but that has not distracted him from coming out and putting his best foot forward. He just goes about doing the little things right. He’s got an inner desire in him to try and be a productive player, every day. He’s learning and developing.
“We’ve had those kind of guys around here, like in my (running backs) position, Ben Howell, and they both have that same type of personality.”
Some walk-ons get recognized for contributing like Gore and Wallace. Others have to settle for knowing they helped on the scout team.
Senior guard Brandon Moore, wearing a black vest on the sideline during games, plays the role of signaling information in to his line mates. He’s played in two career games, including this year’s Kent State contest. He wouldn’t change a thing.
“I literally wouldn’t be the man I am today if I didn’t come to Alabama,” Moore said of his five years at The Capstone. “Just changing how I think, and how I ‘do life,’ honestly. I think I’ve learned your mind can take you anywhere, as long as you think what you need to think, and just do it.
“Your mind can get you through a workout, or it can take you out of a workout. In life, you can do it. We all have the ability to, so just do it.”
Letohatchee product Will Davis is an Alabama legacy who has has spent five years toiling in the weight room and practice field. He has appeared in one game, against Charleston Southern in 2015.
“That was everything you can imagine, plus a whole lot more,” Davis said. “After all your hard work, coming out and getting a chance to prove yourself, is just a great feeling.”
Davis and Moore are fine with being scout team guys.
“We go through the same workouts and same conditioning program as the regular (scholarshipped) guys,” Davis said. “I think that scout team’s pretty important, because our defense is so complex. They’ve really got to see a lot of things during the week, so they can go out and be successful during the game.
Davis’ dad, William, was a defensive lineman for Paul Bryant in the 1970s. His teammate, current Bama Assistant Head Strength Coach Terry Jones, urged Davis to walk on at Alabama.
Davis recalled a favorite Bryant story his dad shared. “Coach Bryant – there was a hornet’s nest in his tower – and dad said they were practicing one day. They always said if Coach Bryant comes down from his tower it’s either something really good or something really bad. So he starts storming out of the tower, swatting and cussing all over the place, and he gets down there and everybody’s like ‘Oh, my gosh! What have we done?’ but he was getting lit up by some hornets.”
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Davis and his mates hope to light up Washington in a similar way in Saturday’s National Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.