Walk-ons Making Big Contributions in Boulder

Asked on Signing Day in February which player will make the biggest impact the fastest, CU coach Dan Hawkins makes a habit of saying, "The walk-on nobody's ever heard of." Last Saturday, five walk-ons, including starting WR Scotty McKnight, played significant roles in CU's win over CSU. It's the result of creating a blue-collar culture on the Buffs where hard work has its rewards, say coaches.

Anyone who watched the Buffs defeat the Rams at Invesco Field last week saw Scott McKnight haul in a team-high eight catches. D.J. Dykes started at one safety position and made nine tackles, third most on the team. Tyler Cope kicked off several times and linebacker Jeff Smart was on the field on CU's first defensive play. In the fourth quarter, Chase McBride returned a punt 43 yards.

All five made their way into significant roles without scholarships.

"The thing I always love about walk-ons, they bring an edge to the deal. They've got a chip on their shoulders," head coach Dan Hawkins said this week. "I think what it does is it kind of helps that grass-roots blue-collar mentality,"

All five of the aforementioned players came to CU via different routes. Dykes transferred from Idaho. McKnight eschewed an offer from Boise State to follow Hawkins when he took the job in Boulder. Cope was scouted by special teams coach Kent Riddle and invited to walk on. Smart had scholarship offers from smaller schools — Northern Colorado and San Jose State — but the Boulder High product wanted to play at Colorado after he was invited to walk on in his hometown.

McBride is the old man of the group. After playing at Broomfield High, he spent a freshman season redshirting at Wyoming, before transferring and walking on at CU in 2004.

McBride, now a senior, said the coaching staff gave him a legitimate shot to earn playing time when they came in last year. He responded by taking over the punt return duties in the final few games in 2006, and winning the starting job again this fall camp.

"You couldn't tell from 5-star Ryan Miller to the newest guy on the team," McBride said. "There's nothing different here between how everybody's treated. If you can make plays, you're going to make plays on Saturday. That's how the coaches see it."

The way Riddle sees it, recruiting is an inexact science. Ryan Millers aren't going to slip through the cracks. But, occasionally, a legitimate Division I-A talent does.

"Then those guys get up here and they say, ‘Just give me a chance,'" Riddle said. "And they come out and do everything right, and maybe they're a little bit better athlete than somebody thought they were."

Smart said a walk-on has to do something to catch coaches' eyes.

"Maybe you have to work a little bit harder on scout team or special teams to get yourself noticed," said Smart, a sophomore who had five tackles in his 27 plays vs. the Rams. "You're going to have to get noticed somehow. But if you get noticed doing the right things, you get a shot."

CU has a history of walk-ons making big contributions. Returner Jeff Campbell and quarterback Joel Klatt, who both played early in their careers as walk-ons, then were later put on scholarship, are among the most accomplished Buffaloes at their respective positions in the past 20 years.

Riddle said three former walk-on players Hawkins and Co. coached at Boise State are now playing in the NFL. He said like any player, for a walk-on to earn playing time is a process.

"If you show up and make plays, you're going to get an opportunity," he said. "Sometimes that starts in drills and it works its way up into a full team thing. Then you get a chance in scrimmage. Some guys do well in a scrimmage and they get a chance in a game.

"It's a process, it's not, ‘Hey, he made one play, let's throw him out there on Saturday.' These are guys that have repeatedly performed well over time."

And if a walk-on repeatedly performs well over time, he could earn a scholarship. Witness R.J. Brown, who was put on scholarship this past spring. Brown, playing his fourth season at Colorado since walking on after a prep career in Hawaii, was named a team tri-captain, as well.

Recently, junior receiver Cody Crawford was awarded a scholarship, after he appeared in 12 games a season ago, starting three.

Five walk-ons seeing significant playing time sends a message, Hawkins said.

"It kind of adds to the idea that it's not social welfare here," the head coach said. "You (scholarship) guys better show up and you better play. You've got some kids that aren't getting anything, and they're out there busting their fanny and making things happen. And those guys that are getting 30 grand a year better wake up and get going."

Impact Walk-ons
Tyler Cope: True freshman, invited walk on from Portland. The placekicker made his way into the lineup for the opener because of the length he gets on kickoffs.

D.J. Dykes: Safety walked on after transferring from Idaho to CU last year. He sat out the 2006 season due to transfer rule, then won the starting safety spot over fifth-year senior Lionel Harris in fall camp. Dykes played every snap on defense in CSU win.

Chase McBride: Took over the punt return duties late last year, then won the job again in August. Had important return of 43 yards in win over Colorado State, which helped set up game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter.

Scotty McKnight: Redshirt freshman from southern California won starting spit, then led all CU receivers with eight catches and 106 yards in CSU win. Coaches love his ability to get open and make plays.

Jeff Smart: Boulder High product. The third-year sophomore made an impression on coaches with his intelligence and quicks. Was in the lineup on the first play on defense vs. Colorado State.

Three Other Walk-ons Who Played vs. CSU: Joel Adams, Jake Duren, Joe Fruechtel.

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