Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 3, 2014

Dennis Chase: Walk-ons play starring roles in Rose Bowl


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Score one for the underdogs.

Kyler Elsworth and Trevon Pendleton had every reason to savor — perhaps a little more than most — Michigan State’s gratifying win over Stanford in Wednesday’s Rose Bowl.

The two were pivotal players in the Spartans’ BCS bowl game. Pendleton, a fullback, caught two passes, one for a touchdown, and threw a key block on Jeremy Langford’s scoring run. Elsworth, subbing for the suspended Max Bullough at middle linebacker, turned into a human missile, launching himself over a pile of linemen to blow up Stanford’s 4th and 1 blast up the gut with under two minutes to play, sealing the win.

Elsworth and Pendleton. They didn’t arrive at Michigan State with much — if any — fanfare. They were not heralded football recruits, sought after by college coaches across the land. They were the unknowns, walk-ons chasing a Division 1 dream as non-scholarship players.

But you couldn’t tell Wednesday. There they were on the national stage performing like big-time recruits.

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio likes to use the phrase, “Dream big.” Elsworth and Pendleton could be his poster players for that statement.

That’s what made the Rose Bowl so refreshing. It proves there’s room for the underdog. If you work hard, and develop, opportunities could come your way. Elsworth and Pendleton took advantage of their opportunities.

Michigan State, in fact, had as many as four former walk-ons on the field Wednesday — the group also included tight end Andrew Gleichert and guard Connor Kruse.

The value of a good walk-on program cannot be understated. Teams are limited to 85 scholarship athletes. With 15 to 20 of those players freshmen, who are often redshirted, that brings the playing group to 65-70. And then there’s injuries and attrition that reduce it further.

Let’s not forget, recruiting, like the NFL draft, can be an inexact science. Not every recruit pans out. For every four or five players a school recruits, one will not make it, usually because of injury or he gets buried on the depth chart and transfers.

College football coaches spend countless hours on recruiting — and rightfully so — because it’s the lifeblood of their programs. It’s a 12-month job. Michigan State, this past fall, made a move to strengthen its recruiting by hiring Curtis Blackwell, who already has had a role in helping the Spartans land three 2015 commits. His job has been made easier, too, by a just concluded 13-1 season. Winning always helps in recruiting, which is why Michigan State should get a bump on the recruiting trail after its Rose Bowl win.

And you can bet, based on past experience, that Michigan State’s staff will be looking to add a few under-the-radar players that won’t be announced on national signing day. Walk-ons. Guys you might not hear about now, but could in the future.