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Utah Utes football: The life of a walk-on

SALT LAKE CITY — Parker Cracroft and Sam Nielson spend a lot of their afternoons at Utah spring football practices just watching. They're both Ute players — Nos. 29 and 59 in the black defensive jerseys — but they don't get the same number of "reps" as the starters and backups during spring drills. And you won't find their names anywhere on the two-deep charts.

However, they are an integral part of the University of Utah program, according to coach Kyle Whittingham, who says the Utes couldn't survive without guys like Cracroft and Nielson.

They're among the more than three dozen walk-ons who suit up every day, but usually don't get the chance to play as much as the scholarship players. They also must pay their own way to go to school.

With more than 100 players on the field and his eyes focused on the scholarship players, you'd think Whittingham might not even know who Cracroft and Nielson are. But he didn't hesitate when their names were brought up.

"They're doing well — they're good kids," he says enthusiastically.

When a reporter expressed doubt about the coach knowing all the players in spring camp, Whittingham said, "I know every kid. When you deal with 120 kids and you get an influx in the spring, it takes a while. But I certainly know Parker and Sam and they've been doing a great job and working hard."

Many programs around the country use walk-ons, but Utah has relied on walk-ons more than most. Whittingham says that in his eight years as head coach, he's had "40-plus" players who began as walk-ons and ended up earning scholarships.

The list includes Chaz Walker, Matt Martinez and Tevita Stevens, who were each starters the past two seasons as well as the likes of Christian Cox, Louie Sakoda, Mike Wright, Bradon Godfrey and Casey Evans.

This spring there are 39 walk-ons practicing with the Utes, but due to NCAA regulations, that number will drop to about 20 in August because schools are only allowed to use 105 players in preseason camp (teams are allowed 85 scholarship athletes). However once school begins in late August, the number can go up again as players enroll in school and usually the Utes carry about 120 players during the season.

"We appreciate the walk-ons tremendously and what they give to our program. We could not function without them," says Whittingham.

"We treat them just like we treat the scholarship guys — they're just like everybody else," he says before clarifying, "Obviously they have to pay their own way, which is a great sacrifice on their part."

Whittingham refutes the idea that walk-ons are more than tackling dummies for the scholarship players.

"If they're producing, they get on the field," he says. "There's a list as long as your arm over the past eight years of walk-ons who have earned scholarships. We feel we really give walk-ons a fair shake and a great opportunity. They're part of our team. Anybody that puts the Utah uniform on gets our respect."

For their part, Cracroft and Nielson are plugging along, realizing their place in the spotlight might be a year or two down the road, if it comes at all.

Both grew up in Salt Lake and even played against each other in high school. Cracroft was a star running back for East High, earning all-state honors in 2007, while Nielson was the top tackler for Highland in 2008 when he was an all-state linebacker.

"Ah, the life of a walk-on," Cracroft said with a smile. "It's a lot of hard work. The spotlight's not as bright, but it's fun. So far, so good."

Cracroft is playing defensive back, a position he is still learning since he primarily played on offense in high school. After starring for East, he went to Snow College for a year before going on an LDS mission. After returning, he joined the Utes last year and will be a sophomore for the Utes in the fall.

"It takes a lot of patience," he says. "You come out every day in practice and you obviously have a goal that you want to play right now. But it takes time to get the technique, the assignments, and the plays understood."

Cracroft says the success of players like Walker and Evans motivates him to keep playing even when he's not yet on the depth chart.

"Absolutely, that's one of the things that drives me, because I know a lot of these guys came from local schools and have walked on," he said. "It motivates me that the time will come and when it does it will be a great opportunity. That's the hard part, especially when you know you can compete. But that's the way it is — you have to pay your dues."

Nielson was contacted out of high school by schools such as Stanford, Baylor and BYU in addition to Utah, but didn't get solid scholarship offers. So being a lifelong Ute fan who grew up about five minutes from the campus, he chose Utah, where he joined the team as a "preferred" walk-on in 2009 and was able to start practicing in the summer.

After redshirting that season, Nielson left on an LDS mission before the Utes played Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl and returned three months ago. He is trying to get back into playing shape and although he doesn't get as many reps on the field, he tries to soak in as much as he can from the sideline.

"You take a lot of mental reps — just watch your position and make sure you're doing the right thing," he said. When the main players come off the field he says he'll talk to the them "about why they got yelled at."

With a limited number of reps available each day, the walk-ons have to make the best of their opportunities.

"You have to take advantage of all the reps you do get," Nielson said. "If you get two or three, you better be getting 100 percent on those two or three."

While both players know their time on the field might be a ways off in the future, there is always hope.

"That's the goal, hopefully I get a chance sometime this year," Nielson said.

"You don't necessarily think a year from now," adds Cracroft, "but a day from now."

That's the life of a walk-on, taking it just one day at a time.

EXTRA POINTS: The Utes practiced indoors at the Spence Eccles Field House because of Thursday's rainy weather. … ESPN college football analyst and former BYU offensive lineman Trevor Matich was among the observers on the sidelines. … Whittingham said Saturday's scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium, which is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., will likely consist of 80 plays. … Running back Kelvin York (sprained knee) was in "The Pit" again, but he's expected to be back on the field Saturday.


Prominent walk-ons

Chaz Walker (Davis High): Started at linebacker 2010-11, 2nd in Pac-12 in tackles

Matt Martinez (Cottonwood High): Two-year starter at linebacker 2010-11

Tevita Stevens (Hemet, Calif.): Started on offensive line in 2010-11

Christian Cox (Bountiful High): Started at defensive end 2009-10, all-MWC

Louie Sakoda (San Jose, Calif.): Consensus all-American kicker in 2008, 4-year starter

Casey Evans (Olympus High): Two-year starter at safety, all-MWC 2006