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Ranking the Best Walk-On Players in College Football History

Not every legend starts with a scholarship. Here are the best underdog stories in the history of college football.

The best walk-ons in college football history

Division I FBS football teams can give out a maximum of 85 full-ride scholarships. However, program rosters often reach or exceed 100 student-athletes.

This means FBS teams – the top level of college football in the United States – are rostering at least a handful of players not on scholarship.

What these players often lack in talent, national attention, or NIL deals, they make up in passion for the sport, hard work, and a desire to get better each and every day.

Here are some of the best walk-ons in college football history.

Table of Contents

Who Is the Best Walk-On in College Football History?

Baker Mayfield – QB, Texas Tech University / University of Oklahoma

Baker Mayfield is the best walk-on in college football history.
Credit-Getty Images/Joker Mag

Baker Mayfield is the best walk-on player in college football history. While his NFL legacy is still being written, it should not skew our view of his accomplishments at the college level.

Despite being a state championship-winning high school quarterback in Texas, Mayfield garnered little national attention from major programs. His only FBS scholarship offers came from non-Power 5 schools Florida Atlantic, Rice, and New Mexico, and the Pac-12’s Washington State Cougars.

Instead of taking the easy route, Mayfield bet on himself and walked on at Texas Tech University. He impressed in his first year in Lubbock, throwing for over 400 yards in the first game of the season as a true freshman.

Between losing the starting quarterback role and miscommunications with the Texas Tech coaching staff, Mayfield made the decision to transfer to the University of Oklahoma.

In Norman, Mayfield became one of the best quarterbacks in school history. He was a two-time Heisman finalist, winning the award in 2017. He led the Sooners to two College Football Playoff appearances and one victory in the Sugar Bowl.

Mayfield’s Heisman-winning season saw him throw for 4,627 yards and 43 touchdown passes, making him the first-ever walk-on player to win the Heisman Trophy.

Mayfield also was the winner of the Burlsworth Trophy in both 2015 and 2016, given each season to college football’s best player who began his career as a walk-on.

RELATED: How Dawson Knox Went From College Walk-On To Top NFL Tight End

Best Walk-Ons in College Football History

J.J. Watt – Defensive End, University of Wisconsin

JJ Watt rushes the passer during his career at the University of Wisconsin
Credit-David Stluka

J.J. Watt began his college career as an offensive player at Central Michigan. On a scholarship, Watt seemingly had an opportunity to be a dominant playmaking tight end for the Chippewas.

But Central Michigan’s coaches didn’t utilize Watt the way he envisioned, prompting him to transfer to the University of Wisconsin.

At Wisconsin, Watt was not only a walk-on, but he was walking into a new position too (defensive end).

After sitting out the 2008 season as a redshirt, Watt shined in Madison. In his two seasons with the Badgers, he totaled 106 tackles, 36.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and 1 interception.

In 2010, his final season with Wisconsin, Watt won the team MVP award and was named the Ronnie Lott Trophy winner as the best college football defensive student-athlete.

Hunter Renfrow – Wide Receiver, Clemson University

Hunter Renfrow was a two star recruit coming out of high school, today NFL scouts are licking their chops, comparing the shifty slot receiver to Wes Welker and Julian Edelman.
Credit-Greenville News/Joker Mag Illustration

Hailing from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Hunter Renfrow was offered several scholarships by local D1 college football programs, but only at the FCS level.

Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian, and Wofford all showed genuine interest in Renfrow, but the young man with family ties to Clemson University wanted more for himself.

Because he entered college severely undersized (5’10”, 155 pounds) Renfrow took a redshirt season as a true freshman to focus on one main goal: get bigger and stronger. In just a year, he put on over 20 pounds and received a scholarship from the Tigers.

In four years at Clemson, Renfrow finished with over 2,100 receiving yards and 15 touchdown catches. He played in three national championship games, winning two of them.

In Clemson’s victory over Alabama in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship game, Renfrow caught the game-winning pass with one second remaining. As a redshirt senior, he was also named the Burlsworth Trophy winner, a fitting way to cap off his college career.

RELATED: How 2-Star Recruit Hunter Renfrow Propelled His Way to the NFL

Clay Matthews III – Linebacker, University of Southern California

Clay Matthews removes his helmet as he leaves the field for the USC Trojans
Credit-USC Athletics/Getty Images

Clay Matthews is well known for his time as a Super Bowl-winning linebacker with the Green Bay Packers, but he got his true introduction to the sport as a walk-on at USC.

Matthews didn’t arrive in Los Angeles with much fanfare, despite his dad being a former NFL All-Pro linebacker. USC won the national championship in 2004, but Matthews was exclusively a member of the scout team. Doing so allowed him to retain eligibility instead of playing meaningless minutes with the backup units.

But when Matthews got an opportunity on the roster – it took him two seasons to be awarded a scholarship – he shined.

Starring at both linebacker and special teams, he became an absolute force for the Trojans. Matthews was a three-time USC Special Teams Player of the Year. As a linebacker, he recorded 57 of his 97 career tackles his senior year.

He credits a significant increase in weight training and conditioning programs for his leap in performance during his final season at USC.

Matt McGloin – Quarterback, Penn State University

Matt McGloin entered the football-rich campus of Pennsylvania State University as a walk-on far down the quarterback depth chart. But by the end of this time in State College, he left as a Nittany Lion legend.

McGloin’s PSU story started in 2009 when, as a walk-on, he barely played at all. He received minimal action in a handful of games, not even completing a pass. 2010 seemed to bring a similar fate until injuries to the first two quarterbacks on the depth chart thrust McGloin into the starter’s role.

Despite losing to Ohio State that year, McGloin became the first Penn State quarterback to throw for a touchdown in Columbus’ Ohio Stadium since 1963!

By 2012, McGloin had become one of the best gunslingers in program history. That season saw him set program records in all-time touchdown passes (46), single-season passing yards (3,271), and single-season completions (270).

Additionally, he led the Big Ten in completions, passing yards, and passing touchdowns, efforts that landed him the Burlsworth Trophy.

Jordy Nelson – Wide Receiver, Kansas State University

Jordy Nelson grew up in the small city of Manhattan, Kansas, home of Kansas State University. As an avid Wildcats fan, he went from being a K-State football season ticket holder to a student-athlete at the university.

Before enrolling at KSU, Nelson was a three-sport high school athlete: football, basketball, and track & field. But despite his high school success, he did not earn a scholarship to his hometown school. Instead, Nelson walked on to the Wildcat football program, taking a redshirt freshman year.

It wasn’t until Nelson’s redshirt sophomore year that he became a major contributor to the team, catching 45 passes for 669 yards and 8 touchdowns, leading Kansas State in each category.

By Nelson’s 2007 senior year, he came by far the best receiver on the team. His 1,606 receiving yards were 1,001 more than any other player on KSU, and his 11 receiving touchdowns were more than double the next closest player.

Nelson went on to become a Super Bowl winner with the Green Bay Packers and is a member of the Packers Hall of Fame.

Rodrigo Blankenship – Kicker, Georgia

An underdog for reasons beyond just his play on the football field, Rodrigo Blankenship became instantly noticeable at the University of Georgia. His thick-framed glasses were tough to miss amongst a field of much larger, non-lens wearing players.

After leading the Bulldogs in scoring as a redshirt freshman, Blankenship earned a spot as a scholarship player. The following season, he made multiple clutch kicks in both the 2018 Rose Bowl and College Football Playoff National Championship Game. This included a 55-yard field goal that was the longest made kick in Rose Bowl game history.

Other accolades included being named to the 2018 preseason All-SEC First Team and winning the 2019 Lou Groza award as the best placekicker in college football.

In four years in Athens, Blankenship never missed an extra point attempt. He was a perfect 200 for 200 and finished his college career with an 82.5% success rate on field goals.

More notable walk-ons in college football history:

  • Brandon Burlsworth – G, University of Arkansas
  • Santana Moss – WR, University of Miami
  • Stephen Gostkowski K, University of Memphis
  • Jim Leonhard – S, University of Wisconsin
  • Marcus Epps – S, University of Wyoming
  • Stetson Bennett – QB, University of Georgia
  • Carl Nasib – DE, Penn State University
  • Ezekiel Ansah – DE, Brigham Young University

More from this series:

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Written By

Muhlenberg College alum based in New York City. Bylines at Joker Mag, Elite Sports NY, and The Apple.

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