If he could, Bill O’Brien would reward as many walk-ons-turned-contributors with scholarships as he possibly could.
But every team only has so many scholarships to give, and Penn State has even fewer — eventually 20 fewer as part of the NCAA’s sanctions against the program.
Monday, the staff announced that five former walk-ons have been awarded scholarships — sophomore running back Deron Thompson, junior defensive tackle Tyrone Smith, junior guard Bryan Davie, sophomore cornerback Devin Pryor and sophomore defensive end Carl Nassib. Each redshirted as a freshman. Because of the sanctions, this may be the last time for several years that this many former walk-ons receive scholarships in the same season.
Penn State’s second-year head coach has stressed the importance of collecting “run-on” talent in the hopes that some can contribute on special teams and eventually more with scholarship numbers lacking because of those sanctions. O’Brien wasn’t the head coach when these five players arrived at Penn State, but they could serve as models for the future with him at the helm.
“I believe our staff did a really good job of bringing some guys in there that have upgraded our roster,” O’Brien said earlier this month. “The top end of our roster hasn’t changed that much, but that other end of our roster has really changed a lot, and that’s a credit to our staff for going out there and finding some candidates to be able to contribute on special teams, add depth on offense and defense.”
Thompson ran for 97 yards on 12 carries in April’s Blue-White game. He isn’t listed on the team’s most recent depth chart, but would likely be the No. 4 running back. Nassib and Davie aren’t listed on the depth chart either, while Pryor is No. 3 at one cornerback spot (meaning he’s the fifth or sixth option). Smith is third at one defensive tackle position.
While these five may contribute only on special teams this season, down the road they could make a more noticeable impact like junior Ryan Keiser, who earned himself a scholarship in February. Keiser “OR” senior Malcolm Willis is listed at one safety spot next to junior Adrian Amos.
Keiser has been the team’s holder for the last two seasons, also playing on other special teams units and at safety. He’s made 11 career tackles.
The Selinsgrove, Pa., native said he hopes to be a role model for other local high school standouts who didn’t get a scholarship, or passed one up to attend Penn State.
“I can absolutely step into that role as a guy that could be a leader for those walk-ons,” Keiser said.
His advice to them: “You have to work as hard as you can everyday, and work to earn your spot everyday. And I’m still doing that as a scholarship player.”
Keiser said he would be happy to talk to high school seniors considering joining the program as walk-ons. He recalled the day O’Brien brought him into his office and said he was now on scholarship, and said he wants others to have that same feeling.
But just because he’s on scholarship now, Keiser hasn’t lost any motivation. That’s evident by the fact that he’s challenging Willis, who has started 17 games in his career and 10 in 2012, for a starting job.
“That’s the point I want to get across,” Keiser said. “Things don’t change when you’re on scholarship. It’s nicer because school is getting paid for, but I’m still working to earn my spot now.”
Steven Petrella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @steve_petrella.