Even though a number of NCAA Division II football schools came calling with scholarship offers after his senior year at Muskogee High School, Ryan McGrath said no to all of them. He had his sights set on attending a Division I program and not just any D-1 program. McGrath was going to go to the University of Oklahoma, whether or not he was playing football.
At 5-11, 215 pounds, McGrath knew he wouldn't be offered a football scholarship at OU, even though he recorded 141 tackles and was a Class 6A All-State selection at Muskogee. But he did have connections to the Sooners. His high school coach, Ron Lancaster, had been at Jenks and had formed a relationship with Bob Stoops when the Sooner coach was recruiting future OU players Rocky Calmus and Matt McCoy. And Muskogee assistant coach Matt Hennesy had also been at Jenks and had played college football with OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables at Kansas State.
"Coach Lancaster made a call to Merv Johnson and they sent a tape of my highlights to the OU coaches," McGrath recalls. "And so the OU coaches said it was OK for me to walk on."
During two-a-day practices in the fall, McGrath convinced himself that he belonged at the highest level of college football.
"I'm quite undersized, but I knew I could still compete," said McGrath. "I'm not as strong as a lot of the guys yet, but I have time to work on that. Most of them were two or three years older than me, but I was able to hold my own."
Spending the 2004 season as a redshirt walk-on, McGrath spent his time in practice trying to get noticed and to gain the acceptance of his scholarship teammates.
"Being short and small, I had to earn my stripes," McGrath admitted. "Any time you step into a team atmosphere that is already established, you feel like an outsider. But about midway through the season, I began to feel like I was part of the team. Once you make friendships and show that you can hang with everybody on the field, you'll be accepted."
McGrath's big break came this spring. The Sooners were short-handed at linebacker, and McGrath got plenty of work with the second team in workouts. He continually impressed coaches with his speed and work ethic, and his natural nose for the football. Being a good student of the game didn't hurt either, as he was able to quickly pick up the defensive schemes.
"Spring was a huge opportunity and privilege to go with the No. 2 defense, said McGrath. "I just tried to give the best effort I could, to get noticed and show that I could compete a little bit."
He competed well enough to get extensive playing time in the spring game, recording four tackles, returning an interception 20 yards and leaving many of the crowd of 41,400 wondering "Who is that number 54?"
"The interception was a definite high," McGrath said. "Pretty unreal, actually. It was exciting."
The spring performance was noted throughout practices by Venables, who says both McGrath and fellow walk-on Ian Pleasant, a transfer from Western Hills (CA) Junior College, will fit into the Sooners plans this fall.
"We've got to get them ready to at least perform on special teams," said Venables. "Their play in the spring warranted us giving them future looks at some point to see if we can work them into the rotation at linebacker, too."
"Ryan did some great things for us in the spring. He has some limitations but what he does have is he knows how to play football. He makes plays, he's instinctive, he's a tough kid, he runs fairly well and again, all things considered, he is still just a redshirt freshman going into the fall."
For McGrath, those comments from his coach match his plans as well.
"My goal for this year is to get in on some special teams play, if possible," said McGrath. "We've got a lot of talent coming in at linebacker and I know I'm short for the position, but I'm going to do everything I can to compete there. Anything I can do to get in and contribute and make plays, I'm willing to do."
"I hope to gain about 10 pounds during the summer workouts and be ready to play at 225 when the season starts."
And McGrath knows that while his role on the team may change this season, he expects to maintain the same status he had when he arrived on campus – that of a walk-on.
"If I got a scholarship eventually, that would be great, but I don't think it will happen," admits McGrath. "If you're willing to walk on and they see the dedication you have to come out on your own, it benefits the team. There are so many incredibly gifted and athletic people that can only be here on scholarship, so if they can use the available ones for those guys and keep me as a walk-on, it works out for the program. And I can afford it, so it works out for me, too."
Any great football team needs its share of Adrian Petersons and Dusty Dvoraceks. But as Venables can tell you, it doesn't hurt to have a few Ryan McGraths on hand either.
Walk-on making bid for playing time
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