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What does it mean to be a preferred walk-on? Coaches explain

With National Signing Day less than 24 hours away, prospects and schools around college football are in a mad dash to get all their seats filled before the music stops playing. With so much movement over such a small time frame, it can be a very confusing time. 

In speaking with sub-FBS coaches, one of their biggest frustrations is with concept of the preferred walk-on. Kids will often turn down scholarship money at smaller schools to take a spot as a preferred walk-on at a larger state school although, in many cases, they're not exactly sure what they're stepping into. 

We reached out to 10 FBS player personnel staff, operations staff and coaches across the nation to see how their program handled preferred walk-ons. Nine out of the 10 staffs we spoke with use the "preferred concept" and to those nine, the clear difference between a preferred walk-on versus someone who simply walks-on is that the preferred means he is guaranteed a spot on the 105 man roster day one of camp, while other walk-ons will have to go through tryouts to see if they can earn a spot on the roster.

Nine out of the ten staffs that we spoke with used the preferred walk-on concept. At each of those nine, preferred guys were guaranteed a spot on the 105 but none of the nine said that preferred guys were guaranteed a spot on the traveling squad. We heard of a few unique cases where the player (perhaps a son of a coach or something) was effectively guaranteed a travel spot but sounds like this is rarely the case going into August. 

One coach added that preferred guys "may also be invited to summer school to train with the team. Some conferences allow the institution to pay for summer school without penalty."

We asked if most of the preferred guys were effectively guaranteed a spot on the roster for week one and most said they were, but two coaches cautioned, "it's the real world, nothing is guaranteed."

"It's hard to guarantee anything because you do not know what will happen, but you have to be up front and honest with the preferred walk-ons that are willing to pass up a scholarship. We have had a number of preferred walk-ons earn scholarships and also a few that didn't have what it takes to compete for one."

In the most traditional sense, a preferred walk-on is a player that has scholarship offers from small FBS or FCS schools that hopes to play his way into a scholarship at a Power Five school. "Most of the time they will be rewarded in their second season on the team so he doesn't get counted backward or forward," one coach told us. "If you look at a lot of the top teams, they have a great walk-on program."

One staff member whose team doesn't use the "preferred" concept told us, "We think it's kind of a poor way to lead a kid on. The 105 is always such a fluid number that any incoming walk-on we tell that we are not sure if they will be in the 105, but we always bring the walk-ons that have been with us in first and then bring a walk-on in depending on the needs we have for scout team purposes or if we need a body due to injury. It's just too hard to use a term and not be able to put any merit behind it because there is definitely confusion on what it means just another thing we have created as coaches to make things more difficult on ourselves."

One response that we got from a coach who clearly has had to manage people before offered this...and we liked it, "Preferred walk-on means you join the team and are a part of the team - are treated the same and receive the same benefits (academic support, equipment, coaching, etc.) as everybody else with the exception of at the cash register - they will have a bill. Nobody around the team should be able to tell the difference between a preferred walk-on and a scholarship player," another coach cautioned. "A program that is good for walk-ons would be one that walk-ons are only preferred. When a program has a class system - scholarship, preferred walk-ons, walk-ons - is a bad situation for walk-ons." 

At the end of the day, it's pretty clear that for those that offer "preferred" spots, they are telling the players that they are on the day 1 roster; but like anything else, they need to earn their reward thereafter and there certainly are no guarantees. 

A former player text us last night the following, "I was a preferred walk-on at a division 1 program. To the program, all it meant was that I was part of the 105. To me, it meant so much more: the extra time to develop myself, extra time to build relationships with teammates and coaches, and extra time to be a part of something great!