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Penn State Football’s Walk-On Legacy Adds New Chapter

Bill O’Brien’s famous “run-on” program, which aimed to combat the steep scholarship restrictions levied on Penn State as part of the infamous NCAA sanctions, is a thing of the past now that James Franklin and his staff can recruit full classes of top-tier talent.

However, there’s a long history of walk-on success at Penn State, and that certainly won’t change any time soon. It’s easy to forget that walk-ons, like their scholarship counterparts, were almost always the best players on their respective high school teams. Only one player made it through open tryouts this fall, as  U.S. Marine-turned defensive tackle Immanuel Iyke stood out among the rest, earning himself a spot on the team.

Below, we’ll take a look at two beloved former walk-ons who earned full-ride scholarships and played their way into the Penn State record books, and two more success stories on the current 2015 squad.

QB Matt McGloin

Matt McGloin

Oakland Raiders backup signal-caller Matt McGloin put it all together as a senior by orchestrating one of the most impressive career turnarounds in Penn State history. It was well-documented that McGloin struggled early in his career with former blue-chip prospect Rob Bolden added to the quarterback room, forcing each player to constantly look over their shoulder when they made a mistake — something that inhibited McGloin from the get-go.

But McGloin persevered, taking the reins of O’Brien’s offense in 2012 and never looking back. McGloin would go on to post 24 touchdown passes — good enough to tie Daryll Clark for the most in a single season. That prolific senior campaign helped the Scranton, Pa. native capture the all-time career passing touchdowns mark with 46, a number Christian Hackenberg will surely eclipse during his time in Happy Valley.

Check out this neat feature on McGloin’s journey, produced by GoPSUSports in 2012:

WR Deon Butler

Deon Butler came to Penn State in 2004 as a walk-on defensive back, but the speedster from Woodbridge, Va. quickly made his impact felt on the offensive side of the ball, finding his home at wide receiver. Butler was a key part of arguably the best trio of Nittany Lion wide receivers to ever play together, lining up alongside Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood.

He finished his college career as Penn State’s all-time leader in receptions with 179, and was near the top of every other major receiving category. Butler was selected in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks, where he played the better part of four seasons.

On the current roster, two members of Bob Shoop‘s defense are following in the footsteps of McGloin and Butler, going from from scout team regulars to Saturday gamebreakers.



Defensive end Carl Nassib, who leads the nation in sacks with 11.5 through seven games, has become of the most inspirational storylines in all of college football this year. Nassib, the younger brother of New York Giants backup quarterback Ryan Nassib, never started a high school game, let alone a college contest, prior to the 2015 season-opener at Temple. There’s no question that NFL scouts know who Carl Nassib is now though, and he’ll certainly have a chance to join his brother on the next level given his prototypical frame and gaudy production thus far.


Local standout Von Walker of Mill Hall, Pa., came to Penn State as one of O’Brien’s run-ons, and carved a valuable team-first role for himself from day one. The junior linebacker started his career on special teams, returning kickoffs and punts for the Nittany Lions in 2012 while also taking reps at running back. He would later switch to safety before finding a permanent home with Brent Pry’s linebackers. Walker’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates, as they voted him one of five captains for 2015.

Walker also made headlines this summer when Franklin awarded him a scholarship during an emotional team meeting. Peep the awesome footage, courtesy of GoPSUSports, below:

Penn State has always been a place where hard work and commitment to one’s craft pays off. That sentiment certainly rings true on the gridiron, as plenty of former walk-ons have earned their place among the all-time Nittany Lion greats. Who will be next?

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About the Author

Ethan Kasales

Ethan’s a senior journalism major who grew up in Lemont, a few minutes from campus. When he’s not covering Penn State sports, you can usually find him golfing or teaching snowboarding at Tussey Mountain. Feel free to email him at [email protected]


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