We know that Bret Bielema was himself a walk-on at Iowa before working his way up to being a team captain as a senior. We know that he awarded six Razorback walk-ons scholarships before the 2013 season kicked off. We also know that Bielema made it a point to discuss the importance of building a better walk-on program at Arkansas during fall camp last year. But do we really understand the importance he places on such a program?
It should be noted up front that this does not suggest Bielema will win any championships with a roster filled with walk-ons and lightly recruited players. However, it does illustrate the significant role such players have in Bielema's system.
Bielema hoped to take what Alvarez started, both in the program's record and the tradition of its walk-ons, and elevate everything...Throughout [Bielema's] tenure, there were not only stellar scholarship players like [Joe] Thomas, Russell Wilson and Montee Ball, but also a healthy contingent of walk-ons like Strickland and Swan, who became team captains in 2007. Bielema also developed under-the-radar players like [J.J.] Watt, Ethan Hemer, Ethan Armstrong and Abbrederis, all of whom played pivotal roles in his last three seasons.
Some walk-ons go a little deeper, with those same players coming to UW with blue-collar chips on their shoulders, forged by the pride of being a part of the team they grew up watching. That "extra heart beat," as Bielema phrased it, mirrors the values of the state they were raised in.
When Bielema took over at Wisconsin, this was already built into the program. At Arkansas, despite the reverential tones in which we describe Brandon Burlsworth and host the national trophy named after him, it hardly seemed like a focus in Fayetteville. He's having to build it on his own now.
Bielema encountered a different culture upon arriving in Fayetteville. Arkansas' walk-ons dressed in a different locker room than the scholarship players, and they also received a different ticket allotment for games. That was one of the first changes Bielema implemented in a program trying to rebound from a disappointing 2012 season following the Bobby Petrino scandal.
It should be noted, it appears in the brand new Fred W. Smith Football Center, all the players' lockers are in the same room, so that's no longer an issue.
This shows how Bielema wants there to be a focus on developing these players beginning the day they arrive on campus, and not as an afterthought, which is apparently not how it worked at Arkansas prior to his arrival. This is another example of Bielema wanting to build this program in his image at a fundamental level. Would everybody love to win more right now? Of course. And there were plenty of issues in 2013 that weren't a result of any type of player on the roster, like a poorly timed fake punt or onside kick.
But it does describe how he wants to build the program for the long haul, and that he's got a very clear vision. This isn't going to have much impact as a quick fix for a program that's now suffered through two straight losing seasons, but it will help keep the program in a more stable situation. Wisconsin has proved to have smooth transitions from coach to coach. It hasn't completely fallen apart when someone has left. I think that's the type of program Bielema is trying to build at Arkansas. One that's not reliant on gimmicks or tricky play-calling, but one that's positioned for success for a long time because it's consistent and has a clear identity beyond just the singular brilliance of a head coach.
The walk-on program at Wisconsin is clearly an important facet in their success, however the development of walk-ons typically doesn't prove fruitful immediately. These are the players who practice, train, and improve over the course of a few years and end up contributing as upper-classmen.
"We have young guys that are walk-ons now that are contributing that two years ago, I look at those guys and say, ‘There's no way they could ever make it on this team,'" [Wisconsin defensive end Ethan] Hemer said.
"There's so much growth here. This a program that develops individuals, develops players, not just four- and five-star recruits, but guys that come from small schools here in the state and elsewhere that it gives us an advantage."
The question is how long will it take to get there, and will Arkansas fans have the patience to wait if more wins don't start coming soon. This isn't to suggest that walk-ons are the difference between a 3-9 program and a 9-3 program, but when people say Bielema "needs to get his own players in here" I do think this is an aspect of that.
It's impossible to separate Bielema from being a walk-on who worked his way into becoming a prominent player and soon after a high profile coach. That's the core of his college football perspective. Why wouldn't he love to have players like himself? Players who, in his view, lack the physical attributes out of high school to become high profile recruits, but have the work ethic to continue developing as a player, even if they go years without seeing the field.
At Wisconsin, that walk-on heritage manifested itself in recruiting. Bielema looked for "undersized, under-recruited and under-developed" athletes to help fill areas of need where other recruits may not have panned out.
"Well, I think that one of the common things that coach Alvarez and I used to always talk about was you'd use walk-ons as kind of erasers," Bielema said. "They were guys that would erase recruiting mistakes."
"From a coaching staff," Bielema said, "we really took a lot of pride in bringing in walk-ons and establishing a mentality in them of what they're going to build themselves into and get the big picture one, two, three years down the road rather than trying to figure it out one, two, three months down the road."
While it may take a while for this philosophy to prove fruitful at Arkansas, Bielema does think it can work in Fayetteville, as Arkansas has built-in advantages for walk-ons that Wisconsin did not have:
Another difference Bielema saw [at Arkansas] involved the greater ability to recruit walk-ons outside of Arkansas. Wisconsin's tuition costs jump significantly for out-of-state residents, but at Arkansas, "if you're a bordering state, you get a percentage of discount to the general university, which makes it much more effective to recruit walk-ons not only in our home state, but all the bordering states as well," says Bielema.
This is an excellent way of showing what type of program Bielema is intending to build. His calling card on coming to Arkansas was his ability to develop these types of walk-ons or lightly recruited scholarship players and turn them into solid contributors. It was not his ability to come into a troubled program and turn it around immediately, as that's something he's never done.
Again, that does not excuse 3-9. Bielema will have to show some sort of improvement quickly with the players he's mostly inherited to be able to get to the point where this program can have the type of results he wants. But this does show that he knows how to build a healthy program by identifying talent and developing players. It's something he's already started at Arkansas:
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I highly recommend reading the article at Bucky's 5th Quarter to get a better sense of the level of commitment to the program in Madison. Their walk-on wall and individual player stories are impressive. It's also good to have a deeper understanding of what Bielema's trying to do in Arkansas.
Thanks to the guys at Bucky's 5th Quarter for letting us use the excerpts.