The Meaning of a Preferred Walk-on

Today many football (and soccer and track and men’s water polo) prospects will sign scholarship offers and National Letters of Intent. But next to them at their school’s signing ceremony might be some prospects who are donning college gear and maybe even signing a type of offer but it won’t be an NLI and they won’t be getting a scholarship, at least not right away.

They are preferred walk-ons, to use the most common term. Football Scoop asked coaches what that meant and while there is a lot of consensus, there is some room for interpretation:

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.

Football is different from most other sports in that it has a roster size limit during part of the year. FBS football teams are limited to 105 participants between the start of fall camp and the first game or start of school (whichever comes first). These walk-ons have to come to campus early and the institution will be footing the bill for their housing and food during preseason practice, so it is important to distinguish who should come in early August and who should wait until school starts.

Some programs might go one step further and invite or request preferred walk-ons to attend summer school and get started on strength and conditioning training. Expect this to increase since these workouts can now be mandatory for part of the summer. But this note about financial aid is no longer correct:

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.”

As part of a package of proposals designed to limit “oversigning” or roster management, any incoming student-athlete who receives financial aid for summer school counts as both an initial and overall scholarship for the following academic year. This was to prevent football coaches from signing athletes, bringing them to summer school, and then greyshirting them. Receiving financial aid for summer school triggers transfer status, so the player would not be able to transfer without penalty. But it also means incoming preferred walk-ons can no longer get their first summer paid for without turning them into scholarship players.

Finally, preferred walk-ons are in a better place to earn a scholarship but in football it normally does not happen until a player’s junior year. That’s because giving a walk-on a scholarship after his freshman year still uses one of the 25 initial scholarships for that year. A player has to be on the team for two full years before they can get a scholarship and not have it count like an incoming student.