Bulls walking on and stepping up

Published September 2, 2006

TAMPA - They are the names you might not recognize at Raymond James Stadium today, the Bulls you're surprised to see making plays all over the field as USF opens its season against McNeese State.

Ean Randolph. Jared Carnes. Treco Bellamy. Will Bleakley. Ilia Petrov. Heard of them? They all started at USF as walk-ons, and they're all likely starters today.

After an offseason in which 11 scholarship players left with eligibility remaining, in which nine recruits who signed with USF in February failed to qualify academically, there's a new class of Bulls stepping up: a group of walk-ons talented enough that eight have earned scholarships this year.

"Tremendous attitude and character. Those are the main reasons they're being put on scholarship," said coach Jim Leavitt, who had 10 current or former walk-ons on the official depth chart released this week. "They have to fight all the battles. It's a constant uphill battle for a guy to walk-on to a program."

In February, Devin Gordon sat in a crowd of hopeful students seeking spots as walk-ons at USF, knowing his odds were long before Leavitt even spoke.

"Right before the tryout, he said, 'If you only have one year (of eligibility), there's really no reason for you to be out here,' " said Gordon, who had spent three years at tiny Missouri Valley College. "Honestly, I thought I wasn't going to make it. But I had to try."

Gordon hadn't even called USF coaches when he transferred in the spring of 2005. It took him a year to persuade himself to try out, urged after he met tight end Cedric Hill at a pickup basketball game.

Not only did the 6-foot-3, 235-pound tight end earn a spot on USF's spring roster and make the fall squad, but last week, Gordon was put on scholarship for his final year of college.

At Hawthorne High in 2001, Gordon was the top target for quarterback Cornelius Ingram, now a tight end at Florida, and drew interest from state colleges. But Gordon wanted to play football and basketball, and the only school where he could was Missouri Valley. He caught 41 passes in 2004 but left that success behind to see if he could compete on a higher level.

"I had to know: Could I really play Division I football?" he said. "I'm glad I made the switch."

Gordon's not the only one. Many of USF's most successful walk-on stories are about Florida kids who went far from home because the state has few low-level programs and no junior college football teams.

Just as Gordon went to Missouri, Carnes was playing in West Virginia, Bellamy in California, running back Walt Smith in Iowa. Even if it meant losing a scholarship, USF allowed them to come home again.

"This is where I'm from," said Carnes, a St. Petersburg Catholic graduate who will likely start at left tackle tonight. "I didn't really like being away from home, didn't like the weather, so this was a chance to come back home."

The walk-ons come to USF with little promised to them. Randolph caught 51 passes in 2004 at Webber International, an NAIA school near Lake Wales. Like Gordon, he quietly joined the team with just one year of eligibility but could make a huge impact, starting at receiver and returning punts and kickoffs.

Together, the walk-ons have helped offset a scholarship deficit the Bulls have faced with many underclassmen (nearly all reserves) leaving before their eligibility is up. With scholarships available, Leavitt has been glad to reward some of his hardest-working players.

"I'm real big with that, if a guy works that hard," Leavitt said. "I love guys that grind, and I want to reward guys that grind every chance I can. ... It's how this program started, with walk-ons."

Whether they're still walk-ons or now on scholarship, for many, today's opener represents their first opportunity to play with their families attending.

In three years at Missouri Valley, Gordon's family saw him play once, and they'll match that total today as they drive two hours to see his USF debut.

Bellamy's family never saw him play in California, but they'll be at Raymond James Stadium today.

The Bulls have 35 current or former walk-ons practicing, a full third of their roster, and those who make it on the field today will serve as an inspiration for the rest.

"Being a walk-on, you can't miss a beat," Bellamy said. "You have to work so hard, and you have to have that hope in your heart to know it's going to pay off."