It’s difficult to pinpoint where one should start in dissecting UNC’s walk-on (and former walk-on) highlights. There was Mack Hollins’s 33-yard touchdown off a smoke screen. There was Dominquie Green’s trio of fumble recoveries and then there was Jeff Schoettmer’s 19-yard pick-six that allowed the Tar Heels to pull away from Liberty in Saturday’s 56-29 win.
Green’s antics secured him ACC co-defensive back of the week honors, while Schoettmer’s play (including four tackles) earned him defensive MVP honors following game film review on Sunday.
All three players are currently on scholarship, although they serve as evidence of UNC head coach Larry Fedora’s willingness to play the most productive players regardless of reputation and high school hierarchy.
Other walk-on (or former walk-on) standouts from the season opener included starting ram Ryan Mangum (3 tkl), punter Thomas Hibbard (39.8 ypp), kickoff specialist Nick Weiler (eight touchbacks) and running back Charles Brunson (team-high 54 yards on 9 carries, TD).
Fedora told reporters following Wednesday’s practice that he wasn’t surprised by the level of contributions from this subset of players.
“There are guys that come in here that are quality players,” Fedora said. “They come in and they earn the respect of the team and they earn the respect of their coaches and they play. They’ve been doing a great job for us.”
Fedora acknowledged that “quite a bit” of his reliance on walk-ons has been due to scholarship restrictions stemming from the program’s NCAA investigation in 2010.
“Our coaches have had to do a good job of evaluating walk-on talent and recruiting guys to come in here and hopefully earn a spot,” Fedora said. “We’ve had quite a few in the last few years that have come in and contributed to this football team and were able to be put on scholarship because of the limitations we’ve had.”
Fedora didn’t know the exact total of scholarships extended to walk-ons since he arrived in Chapel Hill, but he did say the number was in the double digits.
It’s one thing for a walk-on to earn a scholarship, but it’s another to be considered a leader of the defense (Schoettmer) or a veteran in the secondary (Green) that’s picking up ACC accolades.
Associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning has a special bond with Green in part because of the recruiting process.
“I’m happy he’s here,” Koenning said. “We’ve come a long way from me trying to help him get a scholarship somewhere else at a smaller school to Hargrave [Military Academy] to here, so we’re still happy he’s here…
“I think he’s really maximizing his ability. I think he’s doing a really good job. He’s worked extremely hard.”
Green, despite being a true sophomore, is old in terms of safety and secondary experience.
“It’s a big shift knowing that I have to play a leader role, but I still consider myself as a person that’s learning from everybody else,” Green said. “Everybody sees things different. They see some things I don’t see and are able to bring to me. So I still see myself as that young guy, but I know my role is to keep everybody up, keep everybody excited and have everybody fly around.”
While media and fans like the underdog story that is a walk-on, that classification holds no value on the football field. Walk-on or scholarship player, freshman or senior, it’s all about playing ball.
“I don’t really pay attention to the walk-on thing anymore,” Green said. “I just focus more on the team.”
As a result, UNC is moving up the polls with plenty of help from players that other programs didn’t want out of high school. A total of 15 walk-ons and former walk-ons played in the Tar Heels’ season opener.
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