Two years ago about this time, I believe I was the first to sing the praises of walk-on linebacker Kevin McCullough, and last spring Ryan Manalac was the subject of a story as he made his case for receiving scholarship money. I've also written stories about previous walk-ons Evan Sparks and Torry Cornett who both earned their scholarships the tough way last season-on the practice field. Walk-on place kicker Jake Rogers has been featured already this spring, and there are several more walk-ons that continue to make the coaches' decisions tough ones. Linebackers like Obidiah Cheatham and Collin McCafferty are a couple of quality players that I believe will eventually earn scholarships, but it is an ex-linebacker that will be featured in today's story. A young man that played linebacker well enough last year to be chosen the scout team's "Defensive Player of the Year." Now that scout team star has been moved across the line of scrimmage to one of the most mentally and physically challenging positions on the team-offensive center. The next walk-on success story may well be Jason Kelce.
When Jason Kelce showed up at Cincinnati in early August of 2006, he was an unknown. No NCAA Division IA school thought enough of the Cleveland Heights grad to offer a scholarship, and the Division IAA and NAIA schools offered only partial grants-in-aide. Despite recording over 100 tackles in his senior season, Kelce was left with a decision. Should he grab what money he could from the lower tier schools or take a chance and walk-on at Cincinnati. Jason explained why he chose to come to UC. "Coach Dantonio gave me an official visit, and I really liked the coaching staff and felt I'd have a chance to earn a scholarship. I decided to come to Cincinnati and see if I could earn that scholarship."
Earning a Division IA scholarship is no easy task. Prospects go from being captains and stars on the high school level to performing on the scout teams and grabbing any reps they can get with the #3 group to show off their skills to the coaches. Even if they receive a scholarship for one year, there is no guarantee the money will be there for them the following season. Very few Cincinnati players, if any, have earned a scholarship after one season, and many have gotten discouraged and left the program after that initial year. A player like Kevin McCullough, who went from walk-on to 1st team All Big East in three seasons, is the exception and certainly not the rule. Walking-on at a Division IA program is where many adolescent dreams go to die.
The spring prospectus lists Jason at 6' 3"/240 pounds, but Jason says those numbers are already obsolete. "I'm 6' 3"/250 pounds." Many Bearcat football fans will roll their eyes at the thought of a Division IA center weighing only 250 pounds, but walk-ons are used to seeing people roll their eyes. They use it as motivation. In Kelce's case, he sees the switch as a legitimate opportunity to get onto the field and help his team. "I'm just trying to do what's best for the team. I'd like to get on the field. I felt that I could play linebacker here, but the coaches pulled me in and said they felt it was in the best interest of the team for me to move to center. If I put forth the work, I think I can play that position." Rule #1 for a walk-on. NEVER get discouraged, and NEVER stop believing in yourself regardless of the circumstances. Incidentally, until last week, Jason had never played on the offensive line.
Adjusting from a position of reaction to a mentally challenging spot like center has not been without its share of problems. "Right now I need to learn the plays. That's a big difference between offense and defense. We have set plays on offense. Once I learn the plays, Coach Longo will continue to develop my body. He's already helping me get stronger and bigger. If I do that, I think I can challenge for a starting position." Strength and conditioning coach, Paul Longo, has a history of taking players like Jason and molding them into star offensive linemen, and Jason has heard about it first hand as he laughingly said, "He's told me about it many times."
When I asked Coach Longo about Kelce, he gave a wry smile before responding. "What we like about Jason Kelce is he's tough and passionate about football. He's got a good work ethic and is a team player. He's got good speed. He's a 4.7 or 4.8 kid. He's in the area of 245 pounds right now, and you'll see him next year at a solid 265 range. Then it will be 285 the next year and eventually 290 to 300 pound range still running a 4.8 forty so he's a perfect example of the kind of kid we want at that position to come in here and be developed like Joe Staley (projected 1st round tackle at Central Michigan)."
Kelce knows he needs to continue to add good weight to become a better offensive lineman, and his goal is extremely ambitious for next season. "I'm going to try to put on as much weight as I can without getting fat. I'm going to try to get to 280-285. I think that's a realistic weight for me to play in August." Once again refer to walk-on rule #1. "I always set the bar high. I don't like to set it low. That way I know I'm doing the best I can."
Another problem for this business major has been making the quarterback snaps in the shotgun formation. "It's been very difficult. I need to get my snaps down. We're primarily a shotgun team, and my snaps just aren't very good right now." After Friday's practice, Jason spent about twenty minutes working with Chris Flores and Chris Jurek on his snaps. "If I'm not out here working extra, Coach Kelly would be on my butt. I want to get on the field so I need to get my snaps down, learn the offense and get my steps right. I'm already behind everyone else." Although Flores and Jurek are competing for the same job, Jason says everyone works together. "We're all friends out here. We all have to be ready if someone gets hurt. Coach Kelly has really been preaching ‘next man in' to us."
When Kelce came to Cincinnati, he quickly earned an impressive nickname. "They used to call me Dick Butkus for the first two weeks when I came to camp. No one really knew who I was, and I was running around hitting guys. It was kind of an old school name because I wasn't that fast but big and strong." He admits he misses those opportunities of waylaying a running back. "Yeah, I miss hitting running backs, but now I have to block for them. But I'm happy with what I'm doing." Jason actually averaged over 9 yards a carry as a high school runner so he was also asked if he missed toting the pig skin. He couldn't resist poking some fun at the guys he know helps. "Everyone misses being a running back. It's the easiest job on the field-running and scoring touchdowns."
But nothing is easy about being a walk-on, and no one knows that better than Jason Kelce as he tries to earn his scholarship by learning a brand-new position. Meanwhile, there's a twinkle in Paul Longo's eyes as he looks at a young, raw center and talks about "his next project."