17 of the best walk-ons in college football history

Here are 17 of the most successful walk-ons from the BCS era (1998-2014). Some have won the Burlsworth Trophy, awarded to the best college football player who began as a walk-on.

Here's the TL/DR version: Baker Mayfield — Texas Tech, Oklahoma Stetson Bennett — Georgia Luke Falk — Washington State

Here's the TL/DR version: Matt McGloin — Penn State Austin Davis — Southern Mississippi Hunter Renfrow — Clemson 

Here's the TL/DR version: Justin Hardy —  East Carolina Jared Abbrederis — Wisconsin Sean Bedford — Georgia Tech

Here's the TL/DR version: J.J. Watt — Wisconsin Clay Matthews — USC Jim Leonhard — Wisconsin

Here's the TL/DR version: Rodrigo Blankenship — Georgia Stephen Gostkowski — Memphis Kenny Willekes — Michigan State

Here's the TL/DR version: Jimmy Morrissey — Pitt Grant Morgan — Arkansas

1) Baker Mayfield In 2017, Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy with 86% of the vote after completing 285-of-404 attempted passes for 4,627 yards, 43 touchdowns, and six interceptions. He led the Sooners to another CFP semifinal but lost 54-48 to Georgia.

2) Stetson Bennett Bennett left the program the following season for a starting job at Jones County Junior College (MS). There, he threw 16 touchdowns for 1,840 yards. Georgia came calling for Stetson shortly after, this time offering him a scholarship offer. The backup quarterback was his primary role until that remarkable 56-7 win over UAB in 2021. Now he's a national champion forever.

3) Luke Falk Falk was awarded the 2017 Burlsworth Trophy, he became the all-time record holder for touchdown passes in Pac-12 history, surpassing Southern California's Matt Barkley.

4) Matt McGloin McGloin would trade starts with Bolden in 2011 but gained the trust of new head coach Bill O'Brien to become the starting quarterback. He recorded a single-season school record for most passing yards (3,271), breaking Daryll Clark's 3,003 yards set in 2009. He led the Big Ten with 270 completions (a school record), 446 attempts, 3,271 yards, and 24 touchdowns. Later that year, he won the 2012 Burlsworth Trophy.

5) Austin Davis Davis a football scholarship out of high school, Southeastern Louisiana. Southern Miss offered him a baseball scholarship and used the alternate sport as a vehicle to become one of Southern Miss' greatest football players of all time. Shortly before the end of his college career, he accepted the second annual Burlsworth Trophy.

6) Hunter Renfrow Renfrow's mother and brother attended Clemson and the dream of following in their footsteps was deeply sought after. Renfrow started 10 of the 13 games as a redshirt freshman and caught passes for 492 yards and five touchdowns. One year later, he scored two touchdowns in the 2016 CFP National Championship, though the Tigers fell 45-40 to Alabama.

7) Justin Hardy Hardy broke East Carolina's career receptions record held by Dwayne Harris (268). Three months later, he passed Ryan Broyles (349) to become the NCAA's all-time receptions leader (387). Former teammate Zay Jones overtook him in 2016 with 399 career receptions. Hardy ended his college career with 387 receptions for 4,541 yards and 35 touchdowns. 

8) Jared Abbrederis Abbrederis finished his college career tied with Brandon Williams (2002-05) for the Badgers' all-time reception record (202), highest career average per kickoff return (25.8), most receptions in a season (78), and most kickoff return yards in a game (201).

9) Sean Bedford “Sean is a great story and a good example of what a young person can do if they set goals and work hard to reach those goals,” said then-Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson on Bedford earning the award.

10) J.J. Watt J.J. Watt had an idea of what type of player he wanted to be before enrolling at Central Michigan.  He ended his career as a Badger with 106 tackles (74 solo, 32 assisted), 36.5 tackles for loss, and 11.5 sacks. As a redshirt junior in 2010, he earned the Ronnie Lott Trophy, was awarded to the best defensive player on and off the field, and was selected to the All-Big Ten first team.

11) Clay Matthews Southern California's last consecutive Pac-12 Championship run from 2006-2008 included former walk-on, Clay Matthews. Winning three consecutive Special Teams Player of the Year honors in that span and being named the starting outside linebacker during his senior season highlights his college resume. 

11) Clay Matthews Halfway across the country, an NFL front office was taking note. The Green Bay Packers traded future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre to the New York Jets for a third-round draft pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Eventually, that pick was just one of many more trades the Packers made that day in pursuit of the 26th overall selection. Matthews was the 26th overall pick that year and spent a decade with the Packers. 

12) Jim Leonhard Leonhard's success and effort transformed into playing time in 142 NFL games and into becoming Wisconsin's defensive coordinator in 2017. He remains there today.

13) Rodrigo Blankenship Georgia's reliable scorer and playmaker recorded 67 touchbacks (a school record) and made 87 percent of his field goal attempts in 2017 and scored All-SEC first-team preseason honors in 2018.

In his final season with the Bulldogs, Blankenship finished third in the Burlsworth Trophy voting, before helping No. 5 Georgia defeat No. 7 Baylor in the 2020 Sugar Bowl, 26-14. He never missed an extra point during his four-year career.

14) Stephen Gostkowski The likelihood of a walk-on winning a starting role is slim, but kickers seem to be the most prolific in doing so. Like how all football careers begin, kicker Stephen Gostkowski accepted a baseball scholarship to Memphis. 

14) Stephen Gostkowski He ultimately scored a school record of 369 career points and converted 70-of-92 field goals and 159-of-165 extra points. As a senior in 2005, Gostkowski took over kickoff duties and used a one-inch tee instead of the NCAA-recommended two-inch prop. The difference gave NFL scouts a better glimpse into his potential as an NFL kicker. 

15) Kenny Willekes A 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive end, Michigan State's Kenny Willekes entered the 2019 season as a preseason All-American and former Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. He concluded the season with 78 total tackles (32 solo), 10.5 sacks, two more than in 2018, and two forced fumbles.

15) Kenny Willekes After receiving zero DI scholarship offers out of high school, Willekes was invited to walk on at Michigan State and redshirted as a freshman in 2015. He was awarded the Burlsworth Trophy in 2019, before leading the Spartans to the Pinstripe Bowl, where they beat Wake Forest, 27-21.

16) Jimmy Morrissey One of Pittsburgh's most dependable centers in history was a walk-on. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, Jimmy Morrissey beat out several scholarship athletes for the starting center position. Despite suffering a season-ending injury, Morrissey earned third-team All-ACC honors — the beginning of a three consecutive year-long All-ACC honors streak.

16) Jimmy Morrissey Morrissey rarely missed a game in his career (2017-2020), totaling 47 starts, and surrendering just two sacks in his final two seasons, with zero sacks in 2019. He won the Burlsworth Trophy as a graduate student following the 2020 season and was eventually drafted by the Las Vegas Raiders in the seventh round, 230th overall.

17) Grant Morgan In 2021, the Burlsworth Trophy returned home to Arkansas, where its namesake Brandon Burlsworth went from a walk-on to an All-American in the 1990s. Grant Morgan won the award after starting all 13 games at linebacker for the Razorbacks. He recorded 101 tackles, just the second Arkansas player ever to surpass 100 stops in one season.

17) Grant Morgan Morgan finished five games with double-digit tackles, including 13 against Texas, 12 against Georgia, and 11 against Alabama. Morgan signed as an undrafted free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars in May 2022.

NEXT story

The greatest individual seasons in HBCU football history