Walk-ons important cog in Baylor football’s prep

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Posted: Sunday, September 15, 2013 12:01 am

They’re not the Lache Seastrunks and Ahmad Dixons of the world, recruited by schools across the country and stars of Saturdays.

They’re the under-the-radar guys who received a few small college scholarship offers, but passed them up to be part of a major conference football program.

Walk-ons put in the same grueling day-to-day work as everybody else on the Baylor football team, but rarely see their names in a game story or in a TV highlight package. Many times they’re not even suited up on game day.

But Baylor coach Art Briles knows how important they are to his football team.

“Those guys are invaluable and do a great job,” Briles said. “They help us tremendously on the practice field and the locker room and sometimes on the (game day) field. They’re doing it for different reasons than others, but everybody has a role and everybody is important, and that’s what makes a team.”

Briles and his staff have walk-on tryouts in January and usually keep about 20 on the team. Some eventually earn scholarships like junior tight end Rhett Butler and senior deep snapper Zach Northern did before this season.

Like many kickers in college football, Aaron Jones walked on to the team in 2009 before earning a scholarship in 2011. The senior has become Baylor’s career scoring leader with 348 points.

Yes, Rhett Butler is named after the Clark Gable character in “Gone with the Wind.” It’s also his father’s name.

“Not too many people my age get it, but usually my teachers on the first day of class say, ‘No way,’ ” Butler said. “People remember it, so I like it. My parents decided to stick with the (Gone with the Wind) theme and named my sister Tara after the plantation.”

Coming out of Flower Mound Marcus High School, Butler said he was offered a scholarship from Harvard and several smaller schools around Texas. But he wanted to play in the Big 12 and attend a good academic school for his pre-med major.

“I like Coach Briles and his whole staff, and the school is good for my studies,” Butler said. “That’s a huge reason I’m here. I thought I could come in and prove to the coaches that I belong here and get on the field.”

After redshirting in 2010, Butler saw action from scrimmage in three games in 2011. Last year, he was a fixture on the kickoff return team and saw snaps at tight end in two games.

In pursuit of playing time

Now on scholarship for the first time, Butler is the fourth-team tight end. But he could see more action behind senior Jerod Monk in next weekend’s game against Louisiana-Monroe since Jordan Najvar is out with a back injury and Gus Penning is nursing a foot injury.

Balancing football and pre-med studies has been a challenge, but Butler has managed to pull it off. He’s a six-time member of the Big 12 commissioner’s honor roll and was first-team academic all-Big 12 last season.

“It’s difficult sometimes, but it’s worth it,” Butler said. “You put in all the time and effort on the football field, and you’re all beat up from practice and go straight to dinner and then to studies. It’s paid off.”

Northern was a first-team all-District 16-4A center for Midway in 2008, but mostly received attention from junior colleges and small schools. Since his mother is employed by Baylor, Northern took advantage of tuition assistance that employees of the university receive for their families.

Northern became Baylor’s primary long snapper for the punting team in 2010-11 before becoming the snapper for all kick placements last season. He was elated when Baylor put him on a full football scholarship this year.

“It’s been an amazing year,” Northern said. “I got engaged, I graduated and I’ve been put on scholarship.”

Staying close to home

After a tremendous senior year for Gatesville, quarterback Cole Edmiston could have played at a number of smaller colleges. He was named the Tribune-Herald’s Super Centex offensive player of the year in 2012 after passing for 2,876 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushing for 1,232 yards and 22 scores.

Edmiston led the Hornets to a 13-0 record before losing to Graham in the Class 3A Division II quarterfinals. The 6-0, 185-pound Edmiston passed up a football scholarship to Tarleton to come to Baylor on academic scholarships to pursue a major in business.

“This has been my dream school for as long as I can remember,” Edmiston said. “I grew up an hour from here and have always been a Baylor fan. It was really close between Baylor and Tarleton. But I sat down and talked with my family about it, and this is where I want to go.”

After getting most of his snaps at quarterback during preseason drills, Edmiston is playing at whatever position they need him on the scout team to prepare for Baylor’s next opponent.

Edmiston could probably pick up some tips from senior safety Cody Wetsel, who has logged a lot of time on Baylor’s scout teams for the last three years.

After playing tight end and defensive end for West, Wetsel came to Baylor on an academic scholarship. But he missed playing athletics and joined the Baylor football team as a walk-on sophomore.

“I played multiple sports in high school, and I’m really competitive,” Wetsel said. “So it was really hard to get away from it. But I’m glad I didn’t try out until my sophomore year because it helped me get a handle on my course work.”

Though Wetsel’s main contribution to the Bears is during practice, he feels fortunate for the opportunity to compete in college. He’s scheduled to graduate in December with a mechanical engineering degree, but wants to play for one more bowl team before he’s finished.

“It’s a bit of a load sometimes,” Wetsel said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. They’ve been on the uphill swing ever since I got here, and it’s kept going uphill.”

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