MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- In many ways, it's a typical story. Senior Justin Arndt is an in-state walk-on who had plenty of offers to play at lower collegiate divisions, but want to prove himself at the highest level, and play for his in-state flagship school. Thus, he made his way from Martinsburg, W. Va. over to Morgantown, where he immediately disappeared from public view.
That may sound a bit harsh, but it's a reality for most every walk-on in Division I. As a true freshman, he redshirted, and looking back he termed that the most frustrating time of his career.
"Not getting reps, not thinking you are ever going to play," he said of the 2012 season and his lowest levels. "I did think about [transferring] a little bit. But you eventually see that light at the end of the tunnel. If you really love the game and the grind, you come with that mindset every day."
That change was a jarring one for a player that was twice the MVP of state championship games and helped lead his Martinsburg High School team to a 28-0 record over his final two seasons. A fearsome tackler on defense and a rumbling runner on offense, Arndt was in the middle of the action on most every snap. Then, nothing -- at least in terms of playing on the field.
There were rewards though, that no one else saw. The personal satisfaction of sticking it out. The camaraderie and brotherhood developed by shared experiences with teammates over a long career. And now, entering the last season of a five-year journey that typically sees at least half of those who started it truly disappear, Justin Arndt is achieving a goal. He's starting at linebacker against the Missouri Tigers on Saturday.
"That grind of five years, you go through a lot ups and downs," he recalled. "Now, it's toward the end of my career and you see it paying off. There will be a lot of energy, and a lot of adrenaline."
Arndt did get on the field a bit more quickly than many other walk-ons. During his redshirt freshman season, he saw action in nine contests on special teams, and had a pair of tackles. His play and involvement on those units steadily increased, and he also began getting back-up action at linebacker as his sophomore and junior seasons rolled by. Still, there were no starting defensive assignments, and the majority of his appearances remained on special teams. He noted that he saw action on more than 20 defensive plays only in situations where the Mountaineers had a big lead. However, it was early action on coverage teams that let him know he could compete in Division I.
"I got in on a kickoff vs Oklahoma my second year, and that clicked that I was doing well. Then against Texas Tech I was making plays and that really helped my confidence."
Arndt's progression, while still not publicly acknowledged by many, didn't escape the notice of the coaching staff. In 2015, he earned the Tommy Nickolich Award, which is presented annually by the Blue & Gold News to a walk-on who has distinguished himself through his attitude and work ethic. Still though, that goal of being a defensive regular remained, and now its realization is just a couple of days away.