Eve Craig/SunDevilSource

Walk-on Tyler McClure authors a memorable moment with first career start

After walking-on to the Arizona State football team in 2013, junior Tyler McClure made his first career start Saturday against Washington State.

Paying tuition bills, filling out scholarship forms, and snapping the football.

It's all part of the routine for Arizona State junior Tyler McClure, a walk-on offensive lineman who has enjoyed an entirely different college experience than most of his Sun Devil teammates.

For McClure, the thought of earning playing time for his local college program has always coincided with the thought of extra study time, because unlike most of his ASU teammates, McClure is paying his own way through school.

The Chandler High School product was lightly recruited out of high school, and nearly opted to compete at Northern Arizona before ultimately deciding to take the long road home as a walk-on at nearby ASU.

Like most walk-ons, McClure didn't sniff the field during his first few seasons with the Sun Devils' program, limited to scout team opportunities and repetitions reserved only for backups.

That narrative rarely changes, but following the 2015 season, the perfect storm hit for McClure. 

ASU was short on scholarship offensive linemen, specifically at center, where only senior Stephon McCray had previous experience. 

After the Sun Devils waived goodbye to four graduating offensive linemen including center Nick Kelly at the end of last season, ASU's coaching staff opted to give McClure an opportunity to compete during spring practices.

The last ASU walk-on to earn significant practice reps during the spring was Washington State transfer Jordan Simone, who went on to become a two-year starter in the Sun Devils' secondary. Though the precedent existed for McClure, in-season playing time was no guarantee, regardless of how he performed in the spring.

“Tyler showed in the spring that he can handle good Pac-12 players like we have on the D-line and hold his own and he’s shown it all year in practice," offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said.

Though McClure spent nearly the entire spring working with ASU's first-team offense, by the time the fall rolled around, the Sun Devils were intent on looking at other options.

Essentially, ASU needed to do its due diligence and look at scholarship options.

The Sun Devils recruited junior college transfer A.J. McCollum to the program, and though McCollum wasn't ready to compete immediately this fall, ASU leaned on McCray, who helped balance out the line with veteran experience.

In ASU's season opener against Northern Arizona, McCray served as ASU's starter at center while McCollum worked as his backup. As for McClure, the first-team center during spring practices was relegated to the bottom of the depth chart, destined to continue the path nearly every walk-on leads.

By the end of nonconference play, McCollum had progressed to the point where he was entrenched as ASU's starting center, earning high praise from ASU head coach Todd Graham for playing with an old-school mentality at one of the most difficult positions in football.

But as ASU leaned on McCollum and McCray transitioned back to guard, McClure continued to prepare for his opportunity. He didn't know when, or even if, that opportunity would arise, but eventually, a phone call came.

After yet another week working with ASU's second-team offensive line in preparation for the Sun Devils' matchup with Washington State, McClure took a call from offensive line coach Chris Thomsen the day prior to the Sun Devils' showdown against the Cougars.

"The guy practices like a mad man, so I mean, when we knew that he was going to have to play, I was actually pretty excited," Thomsen said. "I called him and said, ‘you’re starting,’ I said I’m excited and I have a great comfort level with that, I have a lot of faith in you and he did a real nice job.”

McCollum was forced to miss Saturday's game due to what Graham termed a "personal matter," and instead of shuffling the line in the hours leading up to ASU's contest, the Sun Devils gave McClure the nod.

“A little pit in my stomach," McClure said of how he felt when Thomsen called him. "But after a couple of minutes, it set in and I just kind of got my head down and started focusing, but it was nothing too hard after that.”

"Nothing too hard," meant squaring off with the Pac-12's top-ranked run defense at the time of Saturday's game, and snapping the football to four different players, sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins, freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole, and junior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.

With ASU's offense decimated by injuries and in dire need of stability, the Sun Devils turned to a walk-on, and perhaps fittingly, it felt somewhat normal to offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.

"For a guy to come in on short notice and handle the cadence and the fronts that he’s going to see, it tells you how well he prepared and what a great job Chris Thomsen did getting him ready because to be honest with you, I’d almost at times forgotten he was in there," Lindsey said. "He did a great job, I’m really proud of that kid and his best days are still ahead of him.”

While ASU didn't earn a victory against WSU, Saturday's game will at least temporarily live on in the mind of McClure as a defining moment in his career.

The goal, though? To make Saturday the new normal, and eventually earn a scholarship.

"Going out there is a big deal for me, especially being a walk-on, I had never played a college snap so that chip on my shoulder, it gives me a little more confidence being a walk-on and being able to play and contribute to the team," McClure said.

McClure said working with the first team offense in the spring gave him the confidence to step in Saturday evening, because he already knows what it's like playing alongside players like McCray and sophomore Quinn Bailey.

While he couldn't have anticipated the number of times he'd snap to Sterling-Cole, a true freshman who didn't handle snaps from McClure this spring, McClure said he has worked with each quarterback in practice to prepare for situations like Saturday's. 

This week, McClure worked with ASU's first-team offense on Tuesday and Wednesday, as McCollum was still not back with the team. If and when McCollum does return, it's likely the Sun Devils stick with their scholarship option, which is a tough reality for McClure, but one he understands and is willing to accept.

“You never know, it’s a day-by-day evaluation so I mean, you can never really, honestly I was confident in myself that I could do it, but I knew that things can happen and different rotations can work better than others but you just have to go with the best rotation that helps the team win and can be the most successful," McClure said.

Even with talented options on the sidelines Saturday, the rotation Graham, Lindsey and Thomsen chose is one that made an impact far beyond the football field. After watching McClure bide his time and pay his own way at ASU, family and friends knew what Saturday meant.

“My parents were overjoyed," McClure said. "They saw me after the game and they were just so proud of me and I ended up telling them the day of the game and they ended up freaking out. They were super excited and they were telling all of their friends. And my friends, I got a bunch of texts after the game saying they saw me and that I did really good and it was just a really good feeling to see that.”

In a season many will remember for what could have been, a walk-on helped provide perspective for what the season actually was. While wins and losses define a football team's success, individual moments define players, and McClure is another walk-on gratified to have the opportunity to author his own moment.

“It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had here, going out there and playing on the field,” McClure said. “For me, it was just all the hard work that I’ve been putting in, just starting to pay off. I don’t know how it’s going to play out, I don’t know how the rest of the season is going to go, but I’m really glad I got that opportunity.”

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