Football: Cardinal walk-ons flourish

Sept. 30, 2010, 1:40 a.m.

Stanford, like the rest of its Division I compatriots, is allotted 85 scholarships to use for its football program at any given time. With the ability to secure such a wealth of talent with the promise of a free education, it is often easy to forget about the players who pay their own way and hold down the team’s remaining spots: the walk-ons.

Indeed, at some schools, they remain an afterthought. Redshirt freshman Robbie Picazo, a walk-on, spoke of stories he had heard of players who never received game time, solely because of their scholarship status.

But Stanford prides itself on its ability to recruit athletes who, for one reason or another, fly under the radar in high school. Two years ago, Director of Football Administration Mike Eubanks declared: “No successful program can operate without a strong walk-on program.” His statement, said well before Stanford had achieved a No. 9 national ranking, has proven to be prophetic.

Ryan and Griff Whalen — the Cardinal’s No. 1 and No. 3 receivers, respectively — as well as Nate Whitaker, a Lou Groza Award candidate as Stanford’s kicker, and Zach Nolan, the team’s errorless long snapper, came to The Farm without scholarships in hand. And the Cardinal’s all-important scout teams — which prepare the starters and top reserves for the next opponent by mimicking its schemes — are littered with walk-ons, many of whom are recognized by coach Jim Harbaugh publicly, and on a weekly basis, for their practice performances.

The road to prominence is certainly not easy, but Harbaugh is clear: walk-ons are not thought of differently, or set at an inherent disadvantage from the onset of their careers. The thinking goes: If a player shows he can contribute, he will contribute, regardless of whether or not he has a free ride.

“We look at walk-ons the same as everybody else,” Harbaugh said. “We go and get guys who are good football players and then try to evaluate them. There’s no different method.”

“Stanford is a lot different from other places,” Picazo said. “Coach Harbaugh treats you the same, and if you can help the team, you’re going to play. It’s a lot different from other schools.”

In the past two years in particular, the walk-on program has flourished. If a viewer were to watch the second half of Stanford’s win over Wake Forest, for example, he or she would have seen a field filled with redshirt freshman walk-ons from the recruiting class of 2009. There was receiver Sam Knapp making his first career reception. There was running back Andrew Stutz scoring a touchdown on just his second carry. There was linebacker Brent Etiz jumping the snap count with regularity, and recording three tackles, including one for a loss. All were seeing their first collegiate action; all performed up to par.

“You come full circle, and you really feel like you’re contributing,” Etiz said.

Knapp, Stutz and Etiz were not the only ones to get in on the action. Jacob Gowan, Brent Seals and Myles Muagututia have all seen playing time in multiple games this season. Muagututia, a safety, was rewarded with a scholarship before the year began. Even players that have yet to get snaps have played significant roles. Picazo, as a true freshman, was the No. 2 quarterback in the Sun Bowl last season, and Michael Spanos, who is out for the year with a torn ACL, won Harbaugh’s praise throughout spring practices, and may have seen time in 2010 had he been healthy.

For most, playing time is fleeting. Knapp had no illusions of grandeur.

“Whenever you’re third string, you’re always watching the scoreboard and hoping,” he said. “In terms of playing time, you don’t really expect any, so any that you get is a huge bonus.”

That said, the walk-ons are immensely serious about their preparations. Although those are mainly for the benefit of the starters, their scout team work has them ready should playing time should arise.

Etiz provides a fine example. Against the Demon Deacons, he seemed to be in the backfield as soon as the ball was snapped. He attributed that success to studying Wake Forest’s silent count on film and during the game.

“I timed it up, and the pieces came into place,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in our work; it means a lot to us.”

That collective mentality was one that the class established as soon as it came to campus.

“We definitely came in and bonded instantly,” Knapp said. “We have a really strong class.”

For his part, Harbaugh recognizes the ability of this particular walk-on group.

“There’s no question that last year’s class was the best we’ve had,” he said.

But he is never the one to rest on his laurels or resist issuing a challenge.

“The newest class is really good, too,” Harbaugh said. “I can’t tell which one will be better in the long run.”

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