LARAMIE — Craig Bohl has an affinity for walk-ons.
One reason is because he was one back in the day. Wyoming’s coach, a Nebraska native, stayed home to walk on at the University of Nebraska in the late 1970s and spent three seasons as a reserve defensive back for Tom Osborne’s Huskers.
“While I didn’t play much, it was a great experience for me,” Bohl said. “I felt like there was value that I had.”
Another reason is because of what they mean to Bohl and his program today. The Cowboys’ latest recruiting cycle came with 24 scholarship players being signed before it was over, but eight other players will join the program next season as preferred walk-ons — players who are guaranteed a roster spot but won’t be on scholarship.
Those are tight end Vance Brazile, defensive lineman Akili Bonner, running back Jeremy Hollingsworth, offensive lineman Mason Schultz, defensive back Jack Thiele, kicker Luke Glassock, defensive end Jordan Bertagnole and offensive lineman Connor Shopp. The group features plenty of local flavor with Bonner, who played his prep ball at Jesuit High in Sacramento, being the only one who doesn’t call Wyoming or Colorado home.
Glassock doubled as a quarterback for Class 2A Buffalo High while Bertagnole and Shopp are now teammates after suiting up for rival schools in Casper. Bertagnole was also a receiver for Natrona County while Shopp played for Kelly Walsh. Thiele, a safety for Pomona High in Arvada, Colorado, is the son of former Wyoming linebacker Jarod Thiele.
They’re all next in what’s been a successful line of walk-ons at Wyoming during Bohl’s five-year tenure. Most notable is Marcus Epps, who racked up 325 tackles and nine interceptions as a four-year starter and paired with Andrew Wingard to form arguably the best safety tandem in program history. He was a finalist as a senior last season for the Burlsworth Trophy, which is awarded annually to the top college football player that started his career as a walk-on.
Garrett Crall, who led the Cowboys with 4.5 sacks last season, is now a starter at defensive end after arriving on campus three years ago without a scholarship. Gillette native Austin Fort returned to Wyoming as a walk-on tight end in 2016 and rose to the top of the depth chart last season before sustaining a knee injury.
Linebacker Adam Pilapil, defensive back Chavez Pownell Jr., receiver Ayden Eberhardt, cornerback Sidney Washington Jr., offensive lineman Pahl Schwab, defensive end Josiah Hall, punter Ryan Galovich, fullback Jeff Burroughs from Yoder and punter/receiver Dontae Crowe, a Sheridan native, are all current or former walk-ons that ended the season on Wyoming’s two-deep, though Washington and Schwab have since left the team.
“It’s a critical, critical part of our program,” Bohl said. “Walk-ons are guys that really add great value to our program.”
That’s mainly because Wyoming and other Group of Five schools aren’t signing nearly as many blue-chip prospects as their Power Five competition, leaving less of a talent gap on the roster between the players on scholarship and those that aren’t. Injuries also factor in to walk-ons being pressed into action. But if all things are equal, Bohl said performance will always determine playing time regardless of his players’ scholarship status.
“Another thing you’ll find is time and time again the guy who’s heavily recruited, you think he’s going to be a great player and then for some reason they don’t pan out,” Bohl said. “Then the guy who maybe was the overachiever in high school comes in and really continues to work hard. One of two things happen: Either the guy that’s heavily recruited starts upping his game because somebody’s pushing him or they get beat out. The thing we’ve told all our guys is if you’re good enough, you’re going to play.”
And if that performance is worthy of a walk-on being put on scholarship at some point, Bohl isn’t hesitant to do it. He said he’s awarded scholarships to 27 walk-ons at Wyoming with Epps, Crall, Fort, Hall and Eberhardt being among them.
It’s part of the reason why Bohl believes Wyoming has been able to attract so many willing walk-ons, including some who’ve passed on the chance to get their school paid for elsewhere.
“We’re going to evaluate every one of you,” Bohl said. “I think we watch more tape, practice and scrimmages than anyone in college football. As a result, the cream rises to the top. If one of those guys reaches that level where they deserve a scholarship, that’s the very first place we look to reward a scholarship. We back up what we say, and that word spreads around.”