For 19-year-old Zach Crowl of North Myrtle Beach, walking on to the USC football team was more than an impulse decision. It was a chance to continue playing his favorite sport at the next level. But walking on to the USC football team would prove a much more demanding process than he expected.
Crowl’s competitive football experience dates back to seventh grade. After two years on the middle school team and one more on JV his freshman year, Crowl became North Myrtle Beach High’s varsity starting kicker his sophomore year. Crowl enjoyed great success in his three years as the starter, garnering All-Region, “Toast of the Coast,” and “Male Athlete of the Year” honors.
Playing for USC’s football team is an appealing option to walk-ons for several reasons, including the chance to play in the most prestigious conference in the nation, the opportunity to play for Coach Spurrier, and the glory and fame that come with wearing the garnet and black on Saturdays. Yet for Crowl, the decision to attempt to walk on was simple. “I feel like its every high school player’s dream to play college football. Just the excitement and the atmosphere,” Crowl said. “I’ve always wanted to play at the next level.”
Crowl’s motivation also came from his high school coaches and Ryan Quigley, a former teammate who went on to become a punter at Boston College and then the NFL. Said Crowl of the man who taught him how to kick: “I couldn’t have asked for a better role model.”
Though Crowl and many other walk-ons have previous football experience, the process of joining USC’s esteemed football team is no cake walk. Several obstacles stand between potential walk-ons and their chance to prove themselves on the field.
Step 1: Paperwork
The first portion of the walk-on process, beginning in mid-January, is a tedious month-long quest to become eligible to play. According to Jamie Speronis, the Director of Football Operations at USC, eligibility is the primary concern of the program.
Walk-ons must fill out paperwork, register with the NCAA Clearinghouse to become NCAA-compliant, meet the proper SAT and ACT requirements, and maintain a 2.0 GPA before they can try out. Speronis said that academics are an extremely important part of the process. “You’re very fortunate to be going to school here,” Speronis said. “So your number one goal is to get a diploma from this university. If you screw that up because of football, that’s pretty sad.”
According to Speronis, the compliance and academic portions of the walk-on process are useful in cutting large numbers of hopefuls, stating that only about half of the original eighty applicants remain after the first month. While many are found ineligible, some give up when they learn of the workload facing them. Among the first cut are the “at least two or three every time…that aren’t going to school here but come to the meeting anyway,” a phenomenon Speronis calls “amazing.”
Step 2: Tryouts
Once the remaining half of the original walk-on applicants makes it to the conditioning portion of the process, they have to pass a doctor-signed physical and fill out even more paperwork. Next comes the long-anticipated tryout. This is often very demanding for walk-ons, and according to Crowl, it takes a lot of preparation.
“You’re at the top level here,” said Crowl. “You really have to train for it. It’s no joke. You’ve got to be physically and mentally prepared.”
For Crowl, this meant spending long hours in the gym, working on flexibility and technique for his kicking, participating in self-designed drills, going out to the fields to train twice a week for the three months leading up to tryouts, and even sacrificing most of his spring break to work out.
All of the training—or lack thereof—that walk-ons decide to put in leads up to physical, more sport-specific drills that give Speronis and the USC football staff an idea of the athletic ability of each walk-on. Because NCAA rules outlaw the use of footballs in training before spring practice starts, walk-ons who survive throughout February participate in a combine-like set of drills. Here, their 40-yard dash time, vertical and base jumps, push-ups and sit-ups completed in a minute, and shuttle run scores are recorded for evaluation.
Step 3: Spring practice
Of the approximately 40 people who make it this far, the group is quickly narrowed down to about 10 in an evaluation and cutting process that Speronis admits is not an exact science. According to Speronis, good players are often passed on because their positions are not suited for the team that particular year.
“This isn’t about ‘fair.’ This isn’t about being just,” Speronis said. “You may be the best…but if we have seventeen wide receivers, we don’t need an eighteenth or nineteenth one.”
For many walk-on hopefuls, this cut is the end of the road, with the news being delivered by Speronis himself face-to face. For a lucky group of usually six to ten, the journey continues. These players join spring practice, and their role and status on the team greatly depend on their performances and efforts while matched up with and against scholarship athletes.
Speronis was quick to refute the notion that walk-ons, once members of the team, faced any discrimination from scholarship athletes or coaches. “I’ve never seen that,” Speronis said. “When you’re on a team, you don’t worry about talent level. You’re all teammates…We’re all in it together.” According to Speronis, walk-ons who make the team get the same perks and privileges as the scholarship athletes with one exception: “Mom and Dad are writing the check.”
Speronis also gave examples of successful Gamecocks who started off as walk-ons. These included Josh Hinch, Travis Ford, Blair Lowry, Kenny Robinson, and Dalton Wilson, all of whom saw time on the field last season. Speronis also mentioned Garrett Chisolm, the inspirational walk-on who started for the Gamecocks before making it to the NFL.
Unfortunately, Zach Crowl was unable to enjoy such success. While working out with mentor Ryan Quigley over Spring Break, Crowl tore his groin. He attempted to participate in tryouts a few days later, but found that he was physically unable to kick a football.
Crowl is now on medication and routinely attending rehabilitation sessions. He hopes to be ready in time to make the long drive from North Myrtle Beach to try out again in the summer. He knows the road will once again be tough, but according to Crowl, “if you want something bad enough, you’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes to get it.”