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Taking the hits for a shot at glory

Walk-ons at USC pay a price with no guarantee of getting on field

November 24, 2011|Gary Klein
  • USC backup quarterback John Manoogian, right center, and fellow non-scholarship teammates Anthony Neyer, left, and Emon Saee, right, look on during a recent practice session. Manoogian, a walk-on who is in his fourth season with the Trojans, played in a game for the first time earlier this month.
USC backup quarterback John Manoogian, right center, and fellow non-scholarship… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

John Manoogian surveys the line of scrimmage, the noise rising to ear-splitting decibels. He motions to his left, correcting a receiver lined up in the wrong spot, then cups his hands around his mouth and barks orders to the running back on his right.

"Red 13!" Manoogian yells, simulating a change in the play. "Red 13!"

More than 1,000 pounds of USC defensive linemen, some of them bound for next year's NFL draft, are poised to pounce at the stocky quarterback. But Manoogian receives the snap from center and, as cool as the early-morning mist that shrouds the field, sidesteps the onslaught, throwing the ball downfield just like Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas.

Manoogian completes the pass. More important, he and his band of mostly undersized non-scholarship players -- "walk-ons" as they're commonly called -- have accurately emulated the Trojans' next opponent.

"Way to go, babe," assistant coach Ed Orgeron shouts as the piped-in crowd noise is turned off, "way to go!"

Manoogian has zipped thousands of passes -- "thousands and thousands and thousands," he says -- during his four years at USC, many while acting as someone else.

He has been Andrew Luck, the Stanford star who is among the front-runners for this year's Heisman Trophy. He has been Jake Locker, the former Washington star who was a first-round NFL draft pick.

Football fans might pretend they are a star quarterback in a video game, but Manoogian, who played eight-man football at Windward School in Los Angeles, passed up Ivy League opportunities for a real-life fantasy football experience at USC.

"It's just a great place to say you've played," Manoogian says, "even if you never got on the field."

Until a few weeks ago, that's where Manoogian's career stood.

Then, with the Trojans up big and less than two minutes remaining in a game at Colorado, Coach Lane Kiffin called for No. 18. Quarterback Matt Barkley was coming out after passing for a school-record six touchdowns. The veteran benchwarmer was going in.

As Manoogian received final instructions, a murmur rose from the Trojans' sideline. "Manooooog." That grew into a chorus of shouts -- "Manoooooooog!" -- from star players and walk-ons alike as he ran toward the huddle.

"I didn't know if it was ever going to happen," he says, "and it finally did."

Most major college football teams have more than 100 players on their rosters. NCAA rules allow for a maximum of 85 scholarships, so coaches fill holes with players who are smaller or a step slower, young men willing to put their bodies on the line for a place on the team.

USC usually schedules two tryouts a year for walk-ons, one at the beginning of spring practice and another, if necessary, after training camp in the summer. Anyone who makes the cut is expected to attend every practice, team meeting and film session, plus all conditioning and weight training workouts.

The tangible benefits enjoyed by scholarship players are not there for walk-ons. They receive no money for tuition, rent or living expenses. If they eat in the team dining hall, they must pay for their meal. And, in most cases, they can expect little or no playing time.

Instead, they are rewarded with bruises from a steady diet of full-speed practice collisions with future NFL players.

So why do it?

For some, it's in their genes.

Defensive back Taylor Ashton's brother, Collin, was a walk-on linebacker who eventually earned a scholarship and started several games for USC's 2003 national championship team. Receiver Cody Gifford's father, Frank, was a USC All-American and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"My dad just bled cardinal and gold," Gifford says.

For others, it's the fulfillment of a dream.

Lineman Peter Yobo grew up in Ghana. He never played football but wanted to become a Trojan after watching a short television clip in 2005 of USC and Reggie Bush.

"The feeling is awesome," Yobo says. "Just being part of that family."

Small milestones along the way validate the experience and keep walk-ons motivated. It could be as simple as traveling with the team to a road game, when conference rules limit rosters to 70 players, leaving dozens behind.

But as linebacker Augusto Alonso says, "The dream of every walk-on is to get in the game."

When it happens -- Alonso played against Colorado; Ashton the next week against Washington -- everyone rejoices.

"They work so hard and kind of get their butts kicked every once in a while," says Matt Kalil, an offensive lineman who is projected to be one of the first players selected in the next NFL draft. "The whole team understands that it's a big deal."

Every walk-on has a welcome-to-USC moment when he faces the reality of his endeavor head-on. Boomer Roepke's came on his first day of practice in 2009, when the former USC swimmer found himself matched against All-American safety Taylor Mays in a one-on-one drill. A coach tossed a ball to the 5-foot-8 Roepke and, a split-second after he caught it, the 6-3, 240-pound Mays blasted into him.

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