There was a recent buzz among Kentucky football fans because the Cats had picked up another athlete to join the team for this Fall, this time it was walk-on Ryan Kendall who played quarterback and wide receiver in high school and is the older brother of talented 2016 passer Austin Kendall. But fans weren’t just celebrating the possibility of a package deal landing UK a talented quarterback next year, they were excited about Ryan. Which is a good thing, fans should show love and support for all of their players.
But the point where they may have stepped over the line is when the discussion turned to him not only contributing to the team but become a major player in Lexington. It is, for one, a lot of hype to heap on a true freshman walk-on whom the coaches didn’t even know existed until they checked out his brother’s film. Before Kentucky offered him a preferred walk-on spot, he was set to play lacrosse at Mercer. It’s a little unrealistic.
Kentucky is recruiting at a new level under Mark Stoops’ staff, bringing in two straight Top 30 classes and well on the way to another one. It’s not realistic to believe that a player that had no scholarship offers coming out of high school is going to outperform Thaddeus Snodgrass or Garrett Johnson. Not to say it can’t or won’t happen, look no further than Wisconsin WR Jared Aberedaris as an example, but Wildcat fans who expect it are setting themselves up for disappointment.
Kentucky has a great history of walk-ons contributing to the team and becoming fan heroes. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown is a great example. Everyone loved John Conner. It makes for a great story but also some poor football. Kentucky’s record 2014 class was good for just 9th in the SEC. Anyone who went to the Spring Game will tell you that the talent level at UK has risen considerably. That what needs to happen in order for Kentucky to start winning. That won’t happen if Kentucky regularly relies on walk-ons to play significant minutes against SEC opponents.
Once again, this isn’t to say that walk-ons are bad or that I don’t want them to succeed. I want the best player on the field at every position regardless of how he got to Lexington. If Kendall or Carson Whitehead or Cameron Fogle or Cole Mosier become regulars and All-SEC players, that will be fantastic. It’s the expectation that is an issue. Because the reality is that the odds were always against them and are even more so now that better scholarship players are filling the roster.
The obsession with walk-ons is understandable, we are all Kentucky fans after all, we love an underdog like nobody’s business. But underdogs aren’t expected to prevail, that’s basically the definition. Walk-ons are important parts of your football program, running the scout team and providing reps for starters. They play special teams and often provide a good example in the locker room. Sometimes they develop into contributors, occasionally they develop into stars. But you won’t find a winning program that routinely starts them, especially by putting four star players on the bench. The story is great but at the end of the day, winning is all that matters.