Sunday, April 6, 2014 | 2 a.m.
For each UNLV football practice, senior wide receiver Jonathon James wears the same sleeveless, gray T-shirt under his shoulder pads. He received the shirt in 2011 when he made the Rebels’ team as a walk-on and was given locker No. 105.
Teams are allowed 105 players, meaning James was the Rebels’ last player. The shirt, with a red 105 on the front, is as a reminder of where James’ journey began.
Walk-ons can make it big
College football programs have about 80 players on scholarship each season. But with roster sizes of 105 players, that means more than 20 spots are filled by walk-ons. These players often blossom into contributors, or in some cases, stars.
Offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth went from walk-on to All-American in the mid-1990s at Arkansas. He was a third-round pick in the NFL in 1999 but was killed in a car accident 11 days later. In 2010, the Burlsworth Trophy was created in his honor. It’s awarded annually to the nation’s top walk-on.
Dozens of former college walk-ons have gone on to make NFL rosters, including:
• Clay Matthews: A walk-on at USC, the Green Bay Packers linebacker was an NFL first-round pick. He has 250 career tackles and helped Green Bay win the 2010 Super Bowl.
• J.J. Watt: After a season at Central Michigan, Watt transferred to Wisconsin as a walk-on. A few years later, he was the No. 11 overall pick in the draft and has become one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen.
• Ike Taylor: The defensive back walked on at Louisiana-Lafayette, eventually helping the Pittsburgh Steelers win two Super Bowls and recording more than 600 professional tackles.
He’s UNLV’s Rudy Ruettiger, another undersized walk-on, whose struggle to be part of Notre Dame football was documented in the 1993 movie “Rudy.”
Like Rudy, James is primarily a practice player, becoming valuable to UNLV for his work during the week on the scout team, where in 2012 he was the Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. This team runs the opposing team’s offense to prepare the Rebels’ first-team defense.
Months after James walked on in 2011, he caught a pass for 1 yard in a win against Hawaii. It was his lone career reception and one of the few times he’s played.
“It’s all about work ethic and looking past the naysayers,” he said. “I had a coach in high school who told me I’m too short to play receiver. How many years later, I’m playing at the Division I level. Whether I had just one catch for 1 yard, I still made it.”
The Rebels will have their Spring Showcase on April 11. James hopes to earn a spot on the traveling squad — last year, he dressed only for home games, though he did make the trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“Jonathon is a great guy, great kid,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said, “the kind of guy you want on your team.”
James is one of hundreds of young players who, at the end of their high school career, try to play college ball despite not having a scholarship. But how exactly did he persevere for three seasons?
It’s all about preparation
In fall 2010, months after his high school graduation, James was back at Canyon Springs High in North Las Vegas training for walk-on tryouts at UNLV. There was no game to prepare for, no team to be part of or anyone to monitor his progress. That’s when James made himself into a college player. “If you are really focused on playing football at the D-I level, it is about having a D-I work ethic,” he said. “If you miss a day in the weight room, you shorten your career by a day.”
Pay your own way
James works about 20 hours a week at a Nike outlet and splits the $1,800 per-semester tuition bill with his mother. He also lives rent-free at home. “That’s completely fine, though,” he said of paying his own way. “It’s not about the free sweatshirt, gloves, cleats or socks, which I have plenty of. It’s about the experience of being here.”
Be a good teammate
Walk-ons have little room for error — on the field and in the classroom. One mistake and coaches will easily fill their spot. Some last just a few practices. Few are as valuable to the team as James. He’s one of the Rebels’ most well-liked players, earning coaches’ and teammates’ respect for his relentless effort. “He is an extremely hard worker in the weight room and practice field,” said Brett Boyko, UNLV’s senior offensive tackle. “You can tell he enjoys the game with the way he (works). He sets an example for the other guys.”
Part of the team
James’ job running the opposing team’s offense was paramount to UNLV’s success. “The big thing is guys have to embrace their role on the team,” Hauck said. “We try to emphasize the fact that no matter what that role is, within our locker room, every role is important. Externally, some roles get more attention. But within the confines of the team, everybody has an important function. Jonathon does that on a daily basis with great energy and great enthusiasm.”
The big rivalry game
The most significant moment in UNLV’s breakthrough season last fall was its victory against UNR to win the Fremont Cannon for the first time in eight seasons. But because the game was in Reno, James wasn’t included in postgame festivities. He followed the play-by-play on his cellphone and sent messages to teammates afterward. “I was celebrating at home,” he said.
James takes pride in working with UNLV’s younger walk-ons, showing them the ropes and leading by example. “When you play a sport, when you put your all into something, you hope for the best,” he said. “Nobody plans for their career to go the way mine has. In saying that, I’m completely OK with it because I’m able to spread knowledge about the game to younger players.”