Walk-Ons

If you ask anyone in our league who had the most talent over the last seven years I think most of them would say Rhode Island College. We've recruited a much higher level player than I thought we'd be able to get when I first got here and it's led to a lot of success.  However on Thursday we will start our eighth season at RIC, and I just realized this fact: It will be the fourth year in a row where we have at least one un-recruited walk-on in our starting line-up.  In 2009-10 and 2010-11 we won back-to-back regular season and tournament championships and went to Sweet 16s both years, and we started two un-recruited walk-ons on both of those teams.  During the past 3 years we've gone 66-23 overall and 39-10 in our league.   

What does that tell you?  Well a lot of people look at the idea of starting a walk-on as a reflection of poor recruiting.  Insecure coaches are afraid to even play walk-ons because they think it makes them look bad.  What it tells me is that walk-ons are really important.  Obviously some of the things we really value as a program - mental and physical toughness, how hard we compete, commitment, being a great teammate - are achievable for anyone on our team, regardless of talent.  If walk-ons play or start, all they do is drive home your message to the team more clearly.  Even if you don't have walk-ons who can break into your starting line-up or your rotation, they can be valuable in many different ways.   

First off they can really help your practices.  When I was at PC we had a couple of walk-ons who really made us better.  Kareem Hayletts, who ended up earning a scholarship his senior year and playing almost 10 minutes per game for us, just walked through the door one day and asked to go out for the team.  He was athletic and tough, had good guard skills and could really defend.  We used to joke about the "Hayletts factor" at practice because every team he was on always seemed to win the competitive drills.  He went from being a walk-on who we had never heard of to burying a 3-pointer at UConn when we beat them on their senior night.  His ability to defend the ball in practice made our starting guards a lot better.  He was able to do it, but he was also more than willing to do it because as a walk-on he knew it was his most important job.  He wasn't worried about scoring, running plays or anything else, he knew he needed to be great defensively to help us, and he helped us a lot. 

Chris Burns was another walk-on who helped us a great deal at PC.  He was only with us for a year, and I'm sure if he had stayed and waited it out he would have played significant minutes by the time he was a junior and a senior.  He wanted to play, and he wasn't going to get much of a chance right away with the guards we had, so he transferred to Bryant and was a 1st Team All League player for them.  But the year we had him at PC was also the year Donnie McGrath was a freshman and was playing a lot of minutes at the point for us.  Chris was quick enough and tough enough to guard Donnie, and more importantly he was willing to do it every day.  As a walk-on he knew he had to do whatever we needed to survive, so he embraced the role of guarding Donnie full court every day in practice, making Donnie better and getting him used to playing against pressure.  I don't think we had anyone else on that team capable and willing to do that in the same way.

We had some big kids like Brian Schnurr, Steve Traugott and Ryan McAullife who were really valuable as well.  They would bang with our big guys constantly in post drills and when we went live, forcing them to really work for position and play physical in the paint.  Again, they had one job and it was to hammer our big guys and make them better, so they did that for us. A scholarship player who wasn't getting any playing time would not take the same approach.   

That's the thing about walk-ons.  By nature they are always willing to do whatever you ask of them.  You don't have to worry about a recruited player who's not in the rotation being pissed off about being on the scout team, or taking on a specific assignment that involves making a particular player better.  Walk-ons are always fighting for their spot, always trying to make the team.  They embrace the values of the head coach because that is all they have - they spread your message naturally, just by doing what they need to do to survive.  Does that mean you have to start them?  Of course not, they have to earn that.  Just their approach to practice makes your team better. 

But they should be given the chance to earn it.  When you treat them like everyone else and allow them regular rotations in practice drills they make the practices better.  So many coaches are caught up in the "reps" that the regular guys need so they cast the walk-ons aside, left to stand alone on the side for most of practice.  When they are needed they aren't ready because they've been standing around for an hour not doing anything. 

I don't see any reason why you wouldn't recruit a couple of lower-level players to be your walk-ons at any level.  It may not be that easy, as guys might choose to go somewhere where they know they can play.  But if they are offered a spot on the team and the chance to outwork people for playing time, you can find some guys who will at worst make your practices a lot better, and at best might find their way into your rotation.  It's happened to us each of the last 4 years with walk-ons in the starting line-up, and we've had the best team in our league over that period of time. 

I thought about Kareem Hayletts and Chris Burns on Saturday when I saw that Vincent Council got hurt for PC.  How many minutes do you think one of them would have played in that NJIT game?  Both of them would have played a lot, and both of them essentially just walked through the door at PC.  There are a lot of hard luck reasons why PC has such a thin roster this year - they've recruited 4 guards in the past 2 years who either got hurt (Baker, Dunn) or were ruled ineligible (Gardner, Ledo).  That's pretty hard to plan for.  But the fact that they don't have more capable walk-ons given their roster situation is a mistake.      

My experience at every level has been that walk-ons have always made our teams better.  They add an element of toughness and desire to practice every day because that is their game day.  They look forward to competing in practice every day.  And the ones with some talent who stick with it and continue to work find their way on the floor.  They help you win in a lot of ways.  As a coach you have to realize that doesn't make you look bad, it actually makes you look good.
 
 

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