College football programs across the country brand themselves not only on wins and losses but the notable successes they have at each position. For Ohio State and Miami, it’s “DB University”. On the offensive side of the ball, LSU and Miami pride themselves on “WR University” while USC and FSU brand themselves as “QB University.” For the University of North Carolina however, the pride themselves on something different: Walk-On University.
Walk-on athletes strive to play sports collegiately for the love of the game, not for recognition or for the main goal of playing professionally. They’re often told they’ll never make it and they’re certainly overlooked. As some walk-on athletes have the honor of playing professionally, the origin of their collegiate and professional careers stemmed from their love and passion for the football. While there are walk-ons such as J.J. Watt, Antonio Brown, and Jordy Nelson who are playmakers in the NFL, the majority of walk-ons have their career end after college.
Without walk-ons, programs across the country wouldn’t be successful. Regardless of the playing time they log on the field, they play a vital role in the success of their program. They help prepare both the offense and defense for games while risking injury and working hard everyday. Walk-ons put in just as much effort as the scholarship players. The early morning lifts, two-a-days, film sessions, team meetings, they’re all a part of it. Walk-ons go through the off-season and regular season the exact same way except with one key component missing: a scholarship. While the exact number of walk-ons in college football is unknown, the estimated number is over 1,000.
The University of North Carolina football program currently sustains the reputation of having walk-on athletes that contribute to the success of the team. As many of these walk-ons are now on scholarship, they once were college athletes grinding and competing with their tuition unpaid for. While the Tar Heels have relied on production from walk-ons in part due to sanctions and the reduction of scholarships, they still have to recruit athletes who are willing to compete for a spot with no guarantees.
The 2016 season for the Tar Heels has seen triumphs from former walk-ons, some momentum swinging plays and others even clinching wins.
Redshirt senior kicker Nick Weiler joined the UNC football program as a walk-on at the beginning of the 2012 season. In the 2013 season, Weiler appeared in 11 games as the kickoff specialist, tallying 19 touchbacks on the season. The redshirt sophomore campaign for Weiler was a stepping stone for the kicker. Weiler was a member of the 2014 ACC Academic Roll and began splitting time with place-kicker Thomas Moore in addition to his kickoff duties. He converted 35 of 37 PATs and ranked second nationally in average length of kickoff at 64.11 yards.
Weiler had a breakout campaign in the 2016 season, as he was a Lou Groza Award Semifinalist. He took over both the place-kicker and kickoff duties for the Tar Heels. His season featured 67 PATs, 20 field goals and the breaking of Don McCauley‘s single-season scoring record with 127 points.
Weiler’s defining moment at UNC would come during his redshirt senior season in Tallahassee. With four seconds left, he kicked a career-long 54 yard field goal to chop the hopes of the Seminoles, as the Tar Heels upset Florida State 37-35.
The most prominent walk-on for UNC has been senior wide receiver Mack Hollins. He joined the team as a walk-on in 2012 and redshirted. Hollins was named the special teams captain for the Tar Heels and contributed nine tackles and a fumble recovery in the 2013 season.
Hollins would go on to make a name for himself during his sophomore season. He earned honorable mention All-ACC honors after completing the season with 35 catches to go along with 613 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. He set the record for longest play by a North Carolina player in Kenan Stadium history with a 91-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Marquise Williams against San Diego State. Hollins’ role within the Tar Heel offense increased in 2015 as he hauled in 30 receptions for a team-high 745 yards and eight touchdowns. He led the nation in yards per reception at 24.8 and was named to the All-ACC third team.
Hollins’ senior campaign was cut short as he suffered a broken collarbone against Miami on a 49-yard reception. Through seven games, he hauled in 16 passes for 309 yards and four touchdowns.
Current starting linebacker Cole Holcomb joined the Tar Heel defense as a walk-on following the 2014 season. He appeared on special teams in all 14 games and tallied time at linebacker, recording 15 tackles on the season. As the 2016 season continues, Holcomb has assisted the defense with 95 tackles, of which 55 have been solo. He’s added in 4.5 tackles for loss to go along with a sack.
Wide receiver Thomas Jackson started his career with North Carolina as a walk-on prior to the 2014 season. With the Tar Heels this season, he’s tallied 15 receptions for 155 yards to go along with 3 TD. His biggest reception of the year came against the Florida State Seminoles as he took a screen pass 34 yards for a touchdown to give UNC the lead 34-28 minutes before pandemonium ensued.
Former UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer joined the North Carolina football program as a walk-on before the 2011 season. He would go on to play in 52 games for the Tar Heels and start in 38, including the his last 27 in a row. Schoettmer contributed in his redshirt freshman season as he recorded 23 tackles in 12 games. He would also add two tackles for loss, one sack, and one fumble recovery.
Schoettmer would emerge to the season during his sophomore season in 2013. He appeared in all 11 games and started 13 at middle linebacker. He would go on to finish the season with 85 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. In 2013, Schoettmer would start in all 13 games and lead UNC in tackles with 74, recording at least two in every game. He would collect six tackles for loss, a fumble recovery, and two interceptions that were both returned for touchdowns.
Schoettmer’s senior season was by far his best. He was voted team captain and defense and earned All-ACC Third team honors. He would start all 14 games and be third in tackles with 97. Schoettmer led the team with two fumble recoveries and was tied for second with two interceptions. For his career, Jeff Schoettmer finished with 279 tackles, 1.5 sacks, four interceptions, two touchdowns, and two forced fumbles.
When it comes to the University of North Carolina, walk-ons play a prominent role in the success of the program. Many former walk-ons have embraced the name as have placekicker Nick Weiler and wide receiver Mack Hollins. They’ve even donned Walk-On University t-shirts pregame and while walking around campus. As the University of North Carolina football program trends upwards, former walk-ons are in the spotlight and becoming known. Whether it be on offense, defense, or special teams, you’ll be able to see current and former walk-ons making plays for the University of North Carolina on the gridiron.