Only three years old, stories like Giles Amos’ are already starting to feel quaint in today’s world of college football.
Amos, the former Alabama tight end nicknamed “Trailer Park Jesus,” spent three years practicing behind the scenes as a walk-on before earning a scholarship for his senior season in 2019. He would have otherwise been one of a dozen senior walk-ons for the Tide that year, most ending their time in Tuscaloosa with a handful of snaps and no official statistics.
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Times have changed for college football, and for Alabama’s walk-ons.
Only 82 players remain from the 129 listed on Alabama’s roster for its Jan. 10 national championship game against Georgia. The difference of 47 players includes 12 players now on NFL rosters and 13 scholarship players who already have transferred or are still in the transfer portal. But less talked-about among those 47 departures are 11 walk-ons known to have entered the portal since last season.
For some of those walk-ons, better opportunities for playing time emerged elsewhere.
That was the case for cornerback Brylan Lanier, a Tuscaloosa native who originally signed with Georgia State out of high school but instead joined Alabama as a preferred walk-on last season. He entered the transfer portal after the season but remained with Alabama through this spring, posting clips from practice to his Twitter account. He landed a scholarship offer from Indiana in late April and committed to the Hoosiers last week.
Lanier will be joined next season by two other players who spent last season as Alabama walk-ons and are now with FBS programs.
Quarterback Stone Hollenbach, a Pennsylvania native who joined the Tide over offers from FCS teams closer to home, did not see any playing time in three seasons. Now he is competing for a starting job at Western Michigan. Defensive lineman Keelan Cox did not play football until he was a senior in high school in Texas. Instead of accepting one of a few FCS offers, Cox played a season of junior college in 2020 before joining Alabama as a walk-on in 2021. He entered the transfer portal and committed April 30 to play at Wyoming.
“When you have ‘Bama knock on the door a lot of people’s eyes get big,” Cox told the Casper Star Tribune. “I wanted to go see where I was at as a football player, where I was at as a person. Everybody told me like, ‘You’re not going to play.’ I don’t care. I went down there and took a chance on myself and that changed my life.”
Two other Alabama walk-ons from last season have found new homes at FCS programs. That includes former Phenix City wide receiver DJ Rias moving to Samford, with his new school using Alabama practice footage from last September to make the announcement in February. Offensive lineman Donovan Hardin, who chose to walk-on at Alabama after playing high school football in Ohio, did not play in two years with the Tide. “But with my Covid year and redshirt I still have 4 years of Eligibility so I have decided to enter the transfer portal,” Hardin wrote on Twitter in early February. He later committed to play at Long Island University under new head coach Ron Cooper, who spent last season as an analyst with Alabama.
For Hardin and Rias, they will be trading the long shot of playing in an SEC stadium for a 6,000-seat venues at the other end of Division I’s football spectrum.
Such moves are not entirely new to college football or Alabama.
Walk-ons have been able to transfer with immediate eligibility to play elsewhere since an April 2019 rule change by the NCAA. Before that, walk-ons had to sit out a year if they transferred unless they received an NCAA waiver or were “non-recruited” at their previous school. That allowed former Alabama walk-on quarterback Luke Del Rio to play immediately at Oregon State in 2014 after transferring, and for running back Derrick Gore to play at Louisiana-Monroe in 2017 after two seasons as a walk-on at Alabama.
But not all walk-ons had that freedom, with eventual Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield notably having to sit out the 2014 season as a walk-on at Oklahoma after transferring from Texas Tech and being denied NCAA relief.
The first summer after the NCAA’s 2019 rule change saw Alabama walk-ons in wide receiver Chris Herring (FAU), wide receiver Dalton Adkison (Troy) and defensive back Brandon Bishop (Louisiana) all transfer, with Bishop later earning a scholarship. There was little movement during the COVID-clouded 2020 offseason, but 2021 saw several more walk-ons head elsewhere in running back A.J. Gates (UAB), quarterback Jayden George (Bowling Green), defensive back DJ Douglas (Tulane), wide receiver Joshua Lanier (Jackson State) and defensive lineman LT Ikner (Division II’s Mississippi College).
This year, not all Alabama walk-ons who entered the portal have found new schools or continued playing at all. Long snapper Carter Short, a freshman last season, advertises himself as a “transfer portal Longsnapper” on Twitter. Oak Mountain’s Sam Johnson, who punted for Alabama early in the 2020 season but not at all last season, announced in a Twitter post in early March that he was entering the transfer portal. Having not yet landed at a new school, Johnson on Monday shared a practice video of him as a “Transfer Portal Punter” working with instructor Mike McCabe.
Johnson was not the only Alabama punter to enter the portal this offseason. Ty Perine, who punted for the Tide in several games late in the 2019 season but did not play the past two seasons, entered his name into the portal in late January. Less than two weeks later, Perine removed his name from the portal and retired. Another Alabama walk-on in quarterback Braxton Barker entered the portal after last season but then decided to return to the team’s coaching staff as an offensive graduate assistant.
Additionally, former Hoover offensive lineman Alajujuan Sparks committed last month to transfer to Division II Valdosta State after two seasons with the Tide, and defensive back Jordan Tate-Parker is also headed to Valdosta State after spending time last year as an Alabama walk-on.
The double-digit number of Alabama walk-ons have been joined in the transfer portal this offseason by thousands of other scholarship players from FBS programs. The sharp increase in roster movement this offseason after the NCAA loosened its transfer rules for scholarship players last year does have a trickle-down effect that can benefit walk-ons departing Alabama. Indiana, which added Brylan Lanier, had lost 27 players to the portal and gained only 13 by early last week. Kansas, which offered a scholarship to Cox before he chose Wyoming, has about a dozen unused scholarships after losing numbers to the portal the past two offseasons.
The chance to see the field elsewhere is part of what draws Alabama walk-ons elsewhere, especially for preferred walk-ons who took a chance in joining the Tide despite having scholarship offers. Many state their dream of playing at Alabama when making their decision to attend, but for every story of a player earning playing time or a scholarship as a walk-on, there are dozens who do not.
According to the team’s official participation chart, the only non-specialist walk-on who saw action in a game last season was Barker, who threw one pass late in a blowout win over New Mexico State. A year earlier, four walk-ons were recorded to have played — all minimally — in George, Douglas, Joshua Lanier and Melvin Billingsley.
It has been several years since Alabama has seen players like Amos, who played in nine games in 2019 after earning a scholarship, or D.J. Lewis, who played in 11 games in 2018 after earning his scholarship, develop from walk-ons into contributors. It has been even longer since Levi Wallace went from walk-on to eventual starter on Alabama’s 2017 national championship team, with another former walk-on in linebacker Jamey Mosley part of that group.
Amos, who spent the 2020 season as a graduate transfer at Arkansas State, found a sense of fulfillment in waiting his turn at Alabama.
“Competition is healthy and I think in a culture we are in nowadays, some people like to run away from the competition,” he told WMAZ last year. “Everybody wants somebody who will fight rather than run. I just tell people that you’ve got to stick with it. It’s gonna be tough. It’s not going to be easy. Nothing worth having is.”
Even as Alabama sees an increasing amount of walk-ons — and scholarship players — leave in search of playing time, some seem content in staying. Sam Reed and Joshua Robinson, walk-on defensive backs from Mountain Brook and Hoover, respectively, were honored on senior day last season after never having played in a game. They were joined on Alabama’s 2020 national championship team by linebacker Matthew Barnhill, who never played before graduating in 2021 but has SEC and College Football Playoff title rings to keep forever.
“These rings will serve not only as a permanent reminder of the high level of success this team was able to achieve,” he told KWTX last year, “but also as a physical representation of every hour spent training, practicing, and all the hard work put in behind the scenes to make our run at a championship a reality.”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.