It’s no secret in the college football world that Kansas State coach Bill Snyder has struck gold with walk-ons on more than one occasion.
And he’s still striking gold in his second stint at K-State.
The poster boys for this year’s walk-on success stories include center B.J. Finney, defensive back Randall Evans, linebacker Jonathan Truman, and maybe most notably, defensive end Ryan Mueller.
Mueller, who is among the nation’s leaders in sacks and tackles for loss, couldn’t get any Division-I offers out of high school, and struggled to even get attention from the teams in the FCS division.
When Mueller came to K-State as a walk-on, he was committed to joining the ranks of players like Ian Campbell and Jordan Voelker, who had both walked on in the last decade and found their way to success — Campbell earning three-time All-Big 12 honors.
Mueller first sniffed the field as a sophomore during the Wildcats’ run to the Fiesta Bowl. His hard work and dedication impressed Snyder and former defensive ends coach Joe Bob Clements — also a K-State walk-on — enough that he became one of K-State’s pass-rush specialists. Now he’s a regular player, and another chapter in walk-on history.
(Kansas State’s Ryan Mueller tackles TCU’s Aaron Green last Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium).
Snyder said most walk-ons in the program are different, and they all experience varying degrees of success.
But they also all share one thing too.
“There are probably a lot of things, and I would suggest that each and every one is a little bit different,” Snyder said to why walk-ons have been successful. “To me, the thing that they probably have in common is their tremendous sacrifice that they make.”
Across the country, college students struggle with the affordability of higher education, and the future debt that comes with the financial aid packages that help stall the burden until later in life. Athletes can’t accept that aid, and walk-ons are considered athletes.
But it goes beyond that. While many students are able to pick up jobs to help pay for school and other costs of living, athletes cannot.
“They don’t want and their parents don’t want to build up debts that students create over a period of time just to get their education,” Snyder said. “That’s a real sacrifice and it takes a special person to make those kinds of sacrifices for the love of the sport. I think when you get those kinds of guys, by and large, they have those types of values that we talk about all the time.”
K-State has had several notable walk-ons throughout the years. Maybe the most well-known story is that of Jordy Nelson, a Riley County standout who walked-on at defensive back, became a wide receiver and went on to play in the NFL and win a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers.
Defensive back Jon McGraw, also from Riley County, went on to the NFL and so did running back Rock Cartwright.
Current defensive ends coach Blake Seiler found his way into the starting lineup after walking on. Other walk-ons who became starters include Daniel Gonzales, Andrew Erker, DJ Fulhage, Rashad Harrell, Stephen Harrison, Alex Hrebec, Jarrard Milo, Marcus Perry, William Powell, Tim Reyer, Logan Robinson, Jeff Snodgrass, Marcus Watts and Keithen Valentine.
Despite all the success, Truman said it wasn’t something he realized when he decided to walk-on.
“When I first showed up, I didn’t hear much about it,” he said. “It’s something that really came to my mind after I showed up, realizing how much success people have had here walking on and just working with the system.”
Truman has 69 tackles this season and has forced two fumbles. Evans has 54 tackles and an interception. Mueller stands at 50 tackles with 10.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss.
Truman said to have that kind of success with numerous walk-ons on defense is amazing.
“It just speaks to our great coaching and the system that we have here,” he said. “If you have the right attitude, work hard, go through the system and listen to coaching, then you have the chance to be successful.”
One of the reasons Snyder said they get success from walk-on players at K-State is because of the makeup and character of the types of guys that come in to the program.
And there is some reward there too. Snyder estimated they’ve given out more than 100 scholarships to walk-on players during his time at K-State.
“You know you’re going to get tremendous effort, a great `want to,’ and they make the commitment so they will make the commitment on the field,” Snyder said. “Nobody will work harder, nobody will care more, and nobody will be more disciplined about it. They still have things to gain, certainly the opportunity to play, get on the field.
“They realize that here, probably here as well as any place in the country, there is a chance as a non-scholarship player to get on the field to compete. The precedent has been set year in and year out. I just think that those things are inside that really make the difference.”