Alabama has a history of non-scholarshipped players becoming stars, notably kickers, but also people like quarterback David Smith (who won the starting job over a handful of highly-regarded recruits) or tight end Preston Gothard (a walk-on tight end at Alabama for three years before finally getting a scholarship, then playing in the NFL for a number of seasons). However, it would be inaccurate to say that Alabama has ever really encouraged walk-ons. From time-to-time coaches have given lip-service to the importance of having players walk on, but Bama's non-scholarshipped numbers have usually been below that of most other schools.
Tommy Brooker, who was a tight end and place-kicker for Alabama and in professional football, returned to Tuscaloosa after his playing career ended. While Brooker had (and has) a real estate and insurance business in Tuscaloosa, before the position was eliminated by NCAA rule he was a "volunteer" coach at Alabama, teaching place-kickers.
Brooker tells a story of Coach Bryant telling Brooker that he needed to cut down on the number of place-kickers who had showed up in August. "We can't afford that many kickers," the head coach told Brooker. Brooker explained that the kickers were all paying their own expenses–tuition, room, and board. Brooker said, "Coach Bryant thought for a moment and said, ‘Well, they use soap and water.' The next day I cut more than half of them."
There are few things more demanding than being a non-scholarshipped player at a school like Alabama. Considering the number of scholarshipped players who give it up, it is surprising that as many walk-ons stick it out as do.
Being a walk-on football player is usually much more difficult than being a non-scholarshipped golfer or tennis player or swimmer or some-such. For many years, schools with powerful football teams, loaded with good scholarshipped players, used the walk-ons as "cannon fodder," the guys who were the human tackling dummies and blocking sleds for bigger, stronger, faster players. Scout teams are still made up with large numbers of walk-on players.
At the beginning of spring practice, there was some excitement in the Alabama camp. The Crimson Tide had three walk-ons who had previously been professional baseball players–quarterback Michael Machen and wide receivers Scoop McDowell and Damien Jones. These were "free" players since their professional baseball contracts included clauses to pay for college.
But these players are no different than most. The most important thing to a player is usually the opportunity to play. Nothing happened in the spring to make any of the three think playing time was in the immediate future.
Indeed, Machen said that he was told by Quarterbacks Coach Dave Rader that Machen was not in Bama's plans. Machen appreciated the honesty and declined the opportunity to pursue work he had done as a deep snapper. He left the team late in the spring.
McDowell also gave up football in the spring. Reportedly a contributing factor in his decision is that his contract would pay only what it would have cost McDowell to go to a college in his state. The Mississippi native was having to make up the difference in out-of-state tuition costs.
Both McDowell and Machen (who had actually signed with Bama to play baseball out of high school before turning pro) had selected Alabama during the Dennis Franchione period.
Officially, Jones is still a member of the Crimson Tide football team. But indications are that Jones (who was an Alabama football signee out of high school in 1998) does not intend to continue the quest to be a Bama wide receiver. He did have one big moment in the A-Day Game, a 32-yard pass reception that led to a touchdown.
Recently Coach Mike Shula discussed the Jones situation in vague terms. Shula said, "He's not off the team. We've had some discussion and he's in the process of figuring out for sure what he wants to do. As of right now, I don't think anything is final."
There are at least three influences outside the obvious physical difficulties of being a walk-on football player. One is Title IX, the Federal law that mandates equal opportunities based on gender. The intent of the law may have been to equalize scholarships (plenty difficult enough since there are no college women's football teams to use 85 scholarships), but Title IX is really about opportunities. So when a man walks on to play football, there is an accounting to be made unless a coed also walks on, say, the volleyball team. And there are no women's sports that can handle the number of walk-ons football attracts, even if there were that many coeds anxious to meet the demands of participation in college athletics.
There have also been NCAA rules that have unintended consequences of reducing college participation by college students. (Imagine, the NCAA doing something without thinking it through!)
A few decades ago the NCAA decided that the organization rather than each institution should decide how many assistant coaches a team could have. Fewer coaches mean that fewer players can be coached. While that restriction could be overcome to some extent by walk-ons being kept after practice for special coaching, when the NCAA instituted time limits for meetings and practice, the non-scholarshipped student-athlete was again a victim.
In recent years Alabama has attempted to keep the squad limit at 110-125, meaning fewer than 50 walk-ons. While 50 may seem a large number, there have been cases of colleges having well over 100 walk-ons. Nebraska has been particularly aggressive in having a large non-scholarshipped squad (although that's helped in part by a unique situation in which each county in Nebraska sends a student to the university, and legend has it that a high percentage of those scholars have been good football players).
This is not to say that walk-ons will not be a part of college football in general and Alabama football in particular. There has probably been more interest in non-scholarshipped players over the past few years because of scholarship reductions, but generally speaking the walk-ons are not likely to make a major impact.
One can't help but appreciate the importance of Dawson Brown to Alabama's spring practice. The 6-6, 310-pound offensive lineman is far different than the usual walk-on. The vast majority of non-scholarshipped players are kickers, wide receivers, and defensive backs, followed by running backs and tight ends and linebackers. Most walk-ons have the best chance of playing time on special teams. Without Brown (who will not be eligible this fall after having transferred from UAB), Alabama would not have been two deep in the offensive line during spring practice. Dawson's brother, 6-7, 300-pound offensive lineman David Brown, is expected to walk on at Bama this fall. They are from Sparkman High School in Harvest.
Bryan Kilpatrick, a 6-4, 199-pound safety from Monroeville, was very impressive in the spring. Indeed, he was voted by coaches as winner of the Best Walk-on Award.
Wide receiver is a position in need of help after the graduation of five top players. During the spring junior Matt Miller (6-3, 199) of Gadsden had very good scrimmages. Matt spent two years helping the Tide as a scout team quarterback. He's the brother of former walk-on Marc Miller, a valuable member of Bama special teams who was instrumental in the Tide's Independence Bowl win over Iowa State at the end of the 2001 season. The Millers are sons of former Tide player Noah Dean Miller and grandsons of former Bama player Floyd "Kayo" Miller.
Alabama couldn't have had much work with the tight end aspect of the offense this spring with scholarshipped players David Cavan, Clint Johnston and Greg McLain all out with injuries. In their stead the Tide had three non-scholarshipped players–sophomore Rusty Hill (6-1, 226) of Hokes Bluff, freshman Barrett Earnest (6-4, 230) of Loretta, Tennessee, and freshman Will Denniston (6-2, 217) of Mobile.
Senior Josh Smith (5-11, 221) of Birmingham had good spring scrimmages at tailback and fullback, as did former wide receiver Brandon McAway (5-10, 180), a soph from Oxford.
Three walk-ons were helpful to defensive line depth. They are Justin Johnson (6-2, 248, freshman) of Tuscaloosa, J.P. Adams (6-3, 262, soph) from Northport, and Rudy Griffin (6-0, 284, junior) of Augusta, Georgia, a transfer from The Citadel.
And there will be more walk-ons this fall. No fewer than a dozen young men with good high school football credentials have been reported as planning to walk on at Bama this fall.