The road less traveled is not an easy one, but it usually ends up being the most gratifying. For five Arizona State walk-ons, this has certainly been the case this spring.
Junior linebacker Grandville Taylor, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Shaq Jenkins,junior linebacker Brandon Johnson, redshirt freshman defensive end Cutter Baldock, junior defensive end Gannon Conway, and junior Steve Gallon have made their marks during in recent weeks with the playing time they've been given, and coaches are taking notice.
"I've been proud of those guys," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "Those walk-ons have been a bright spot."
Walk-ons don't enjoy the same perks scholarship athletes enjoy, specifically, athletic scholarship. This can result to stressful, and sometimes difficult situations athletes who have to play football at the university level on their own dime.
"It's been rough," Taylor said. "I've had to rely on family and friends and just the grace of God. But at the end of the day, that's my goal (to earn a scholarship). That's what I'm working towards."
Most walk-on athletes at the Division I level share the same story: They fielded offers to play at FCS or Division II schools, but the hunger to make a FBS roster outweighed the former option.
"I had some small offers from some small schools like NAU, South Dakota, Montana," Jenkins said. "But it ended up me being a walk-on (at ASU), and I took it from there. I didn't think anything of it; I wanted to come out and compete with everybody else and show that I'm worthy to play DI football."
Jenkins has primarily spent his reps with the second-team defense during spring, but worked with the first-group at times in Saturday's scrimmage. A product of Chandler Hamilton, the 6-foot-2 defensive tackle is starting to see his work ethic pay dividends.
"I felt like when I first came in here I had to work, and obviously hard work pays off," he said. "And now that I'm on second team, it's going to boost my confidence that much more. I do feel I can still play at this level."
A walk-on who has particularly caught Graham and the new coaching staff's attention is Taylor, who has earned first team reps due at WILL linebacker to his performance, a shortage of players, and injuries, specifically senior Brandon Magee.
"I think Grandville has been a guy that has stuck out to me that has really had a good spring," Graham said.
Taylor has enjoyed playing with the first team and has taken advantage of the opportunity.
"It is going great," he said. "This opportunity means everything to me. It's everything I've been working for. I'm just trying to get better everyday and come out and compete."
ASU's walk-ons have also seen a difference in practice style compared to last season. Baldock believes the changes were much needed and will set the team up for success this upcoming season.
"We're way more disciplined now," Baldock said. "I think we had a lot of talent last year, I love [former ASU coach Dennis] Erickson to death and I love that coaching staff, but I feel like this year we just have a lot more discipline. It's going to get people to unlock everyone's potential."
Still, with the lack of depth at defensive positions, ASU's walk-ons know this is their time to make an impact and try to earn playing time during the season.
"I feel like it's finally is my time to step up to the plate," Johnson said. "I have the opportunity to really contribute on the defensive side (at middle linebacker). The last years I've been behind some great linebackers that I've been learning from, learning techniques, the little nuances of the game. I feel like now it's finally my time to step up and really compete for a starting job."
Overall, Graham was pleased with Tuesday's practice. However, a major theme he's stressing to his team is avoiding complacency.
"They practice really well today," Graham said. "A lot of people get into the seventh, eight, ninth, tenth day of spring and they start losing that fire about what they're doing.
"We've got to continue to push because now we're actually rewarding people that are running five eighth's speed off the field and on the field instead of going full speed. There's a mental toughness about that after you do it all year long, every year. You become a mentally tough football team."
Tuesday's quarterback play was mediocre, with each quarterback missing targets on a regular basis.
Magee practiced in 7-on-7 drills for the first time since rupturing his Achilles last August. Graham was pleased with Magee's return and said they'll gradually work him back into full contact drills in correlation with his progression.
"I was really pleased with Brandon," Graham said. "I think Brandon is moving very well. He's anxious to get back in there more, and we're just being cautious with him. I thought he moved well today, and we will continue to progress him. Hopefully by the end of spring he might be able to go a little bit."
Senior defensive tackle Corey Adams also saw limited action in practice today and is still working his way back on the field from an injured calf muscle.
Redshirt freshman kicker Matt Kirwan started with the first team today in place of sophomore Alex Garoutte. Sophomore Parker Flynn also took reps during practice. Graham said he wants to have a position battle to see how each of them handles it, particularly Garoutte.
Garoutte responded fairly well Tuesday, and nailed a field goal at the end of practice while teammates crowed him and while making noise to create a pressure situation.
"I want competition in that position," Graham said. "We've got three, four guys that got some strong legs, and we're going to look at them. But I think Alex answered the call
Graham said ASU's defensive scheme requires cornerbacks to be physical, and signaled out junior Osahon Irabor as the most impressive player at corner thus far this spring.
Junior safety Alden Darby and junior tight end Darwin Rogers were not at practice Tuesday due to what Graham called "personal issues."
"They had a personal issue today that I gave them permission to not be here today," he said.
Junior running back Kyle Middlebrooks was also not at practice. Middlebrooks separated his shoulder in Saturday's scrimmage and had surgery. He won't return to action this spring.