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Utah Utes football: The life of a walk-on

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 7:53 p.m. MDT

Utah walk on #59 Sam Nielson, center, works on a drill as Utah practices at Rice Eccles Stadium Tuesday, April 10, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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.

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