North Texas Walk-Ons Continue Making The Most Of Their Opportunities
Inside the North Texas football offices, the hallways are decorated with pictures of big hits, big plays and special players. Zach Orr, Brandin Byrd, Derek Thompson and other highly-decorated players and highly-sought recruits. When you wind your way around the hallway before heading out, there is a wall with 18 mug shots in a line.
This group of 18 players isn't your usual lineup. It's guys who were told out of high school they were not good enough to play FBS football. It's the 18 players that have earned scholarships at North Texas since Dan McCarney has been the head coach, and it's a source of immense pride for McCarney and for every player that has earned their way onto the roster the hard way.
You're Too Slow
Rivals.com is the clearinghouse for recruiting gurus and fans alike. If you looked up Darnell Smith in 2009, all you would have seen was a name and a hometown. He received little or no interest from FBS schools, so he went the junior college route, thinking it would boost his stock for the following years. However, that didn't go as planned at his first stop, Trinity Valley.
"You're too slow," Smith said of what he heard from his coach at Trinity Valley in his freshman year.
A year later, Smith and a friend decided to head to Iowa, with no promise of a scholarship. Smith tried out and walked on at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa. He made the team, ending the year with 34 catches and 507 yards. Through another friend, Smith got in contact with North Texas offensive line coach Mike Simmonds. The rest is walk-on history.
"It's been an exciting journey, and I feel like I have a lot more to do to prove myself to people," Smith said. "I want to do my part and help this team, because this team is my family."
Despite not making a start in 2012, he made a significant impact last season and enters 2013 as the Mean Green's leading returning receiver with 28 catches and 379 yards.
Lynrick Pleasant's journey to North Texas had a lot of stops on the way. After suffering knee and back injuries in high school, Pleasant didn't have many opportunities to play college football. He bounced around two different schools in 2009 and 2010 before arriving at North Texas in 2011
"The environment at my previous schools was not a positive one," he said. "When I saw Coach McCarney was hired, I made it a mission to talk with him, and he told me about the walk-on program and what I had to do."
Pleasant did as he was told. He caught the coach's attention in the spring of 2012, and his rise continued through the fall camp. Near the end of camp McCarney rewarded Pleasant with a scholarship.
"This is a dream come true for me," Pleasant said.
Pleasant was on the field in all 12 games last season for North Texas, but wants this year - his last with the Mean Green, to be a memorable one. "I want people to know and say, that No. 17, Lynrick Plesant, that's a guy that's going to make plays happen."
Growing up, Kaydon Kirby was considered a five-tool baseball player. Yes, he played baseball, but also basketball, football, soccer and even wrestling at Flower Mound High School. Kirby was a second-team all-district football player in 8-5A, a district chock full of FBS talent. At the time, North Texas was well below the 85 scholarship limit as Coach McCarney continued to rebuild the roster, and Kirby connected with the coaches on visits.
He decided to pay his own way and come to North Texas. In 2012, he redshirted and had a chance to learn his position, center, from Aaron Fortenberry, a three-year letterwinner who also happened to be a walk-on.
With Fortenberry's departure after last season, Kirby found himself thrust into the lead role of vying for the starting center job. As fall camp unfolds and Kirby continues to fight for playing time, he hasn't quite thought about being named the starter yet.
"I can't imagine what it would be like to be the starter on August 31 against Idaho," said Kirby.
While Kirby fights for the starting spot at center, he is also working to become the 19th player under Dan McCarney to earn a scholarship. "It would be just surreal, I'd be ecstatic," he said.
Dan McCarney is a man possessed of tremendous energy, not just on the practice field, not just in the film room, not just between the lines. He's always on, moving, smiling, talking, working the room like a seasoned politician. You ask him about any topic and before you're done, you're ready to strap on a helmet and run through a brick wall if he asks you to.
That's why when you ask him about the walk-ons, you can sense a special feeling for every walk-on he's had the chance to give a scholarship, starting at Iowa State.
"There is no ceiling on effort or competitiveness," McCarney said. "It just seems like through the years at Iowa State and here at North Texas, those walk-ons have no ceilings and they are just great examples and role models for the rest of my guys."
It started with defensive back Jamaal Wilson, and the most recent addition came this spring with cornerback Kenny Buyers. There is plenty of room for more, and, whoever that walk-on is, they won't be alone in feeling a sense of pride.
"I don't know who gets a bigger lump in their throat, the young man that I'm putting on scholarship or the head coach that's giving it to him," McCarney said. "There is so much meaning because I know how hard it is and somewhere along the line somebody has sold them short. So when I get that opportunity to give a scholarship it's always one of the most emotional times of the year."