Mack Hollins never received mail from college football programs during his high school years – no letters from coaches expressing interest and certainly no scholarship offers. In his four years at Wooten High in Rockville, Md., he doesn’t remember seeing one college coach.
He heard a story once, he said, about a player who came along five years before he did – a player who went on to play in college on a scholarship. But he said the college coaches and the recruiters never paid much attention to him, or to anybody else, at Wooten.
So after he left high school and went to Fork Union Military Academy, Hollins started sending his own mail: “Hey, I’m Mack Hollins,” he said he wrote in emails. “Here’s my highlight tape from high school. Here’s my highlight tape from Fork Union.”
He’s at North Carolina now, a receiver who earned a scholarship in the spring, but Hollins arrived as a walk-on, without accolades and without promises, except for the ones he always made to himself: Make the most of an opportunity. Prove yourself. Then good things will come.
They came last week. In his first game as a scholarship player, Hollins scored a touchdown on a 33-yard reception. He did most of the work himself, turning a short pass into a long scoring play.
Not long after, Jeff Schoettmer, UNC’s starting middle linebacker, intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown. And not long after that, Dominique Green, a starting safety, recovered a fumble – one of the three he recovered during the game.
Like Hollins, Schoettmer and Green arrived at UNC as non-scholarship players. And, like Hollins, Schoettmer and Green developed into reliable, important players for the Tar Heels – so much that they’re now on scholarship.
Scholarship ‘dream come true’
It’s not necessarily supposed to happen this way – not for players who arrive as walk-ons, and not for schools like UNC that spend no shortage of money on recruiting. But for a variety of reasons – least among them NCAA penalties that have limited UNC’s football scholarships – Green, Hollins and Schoettmer have proven that it can be done, that journeys like theirs are feasible.
Sometimes, the players don’t really seem to believe it – that after being lightly recruited, that after being overlooked, they’re where they are. Green, a sophomore who has started every game of his college career, wasn’t sure when, or if, he’d be put on scholarship. It happened quickly.
“I thought it was going to take a long time,” he said, “because I’m a walk-on, and they were probably like, oh, we ain’t taking a shot with this guy. But they proved me wrong.
“And then once I saw that they did that, that really gave me the confidence and let me know, all right, Green, you’ve got to step it up another notch and let them trust you even more.”
They remain rare, though. Among local schools, N.C. State lists only one walk-on, fullback Tyler Purvis, as a starting player on its depth chart. Three others are backups.
At Duke, Thomas Hennessy, the team’s deep snapper, is the only former walk-on who has earned a scholarship. He’s the only former walk-on who plays a role for the Blue Devils.
Hennessy’s story is somewhat typical in that if a long snapper is going to be put on scholarship, it’s usually going to happen after he arrives on campus. Hennessy arrived at Duke a heralded long snapper – ranked ninth best in the country by an outlet called Kohl’s Kicking – and he arrived at Duke knowing there would be a void at long snapper.
After spring practice following his freshman season, coach David Cutcliffe brought Hennessy in for a meeting and told him he was working on getting his scholarship cleared through the athletic office.
“It was a dream come true,” Hennessy said.
Perfect opportunity at UNC
In some ways, UNC has provided an ideal opportunity in recent seasons for a walk-on to emerge. Because of the NCAA violations that occurred under former coach Butch Davis, the football program lost 15 scholarships over three seasons – five per year starting with the 2012 recruiting class.
Larry Fedora, in his third season as UNC’s coach, said the scholarship limitations are “quite a bit” of the reason the Tar Heels have been so dependent on walk-ons.
“Our coaches have had to do a good job of evaluating walk-on talent, also, and recruiting guys to come in here and hopefully earn a spot,” Fedora said earlier this week. “And we’ve had quite a few in the last two years that have come in and contributed to this football team and were able to be put on scholarship because of the limitations we’ve had.”
So that’s part of it – the scholarship reductions. There has been some luck involved, too. On both sides.
When he was in high school, Schoettmer heard that he was too slow to be a safety and too small to be a linebacker. Hollins heard nothing from college coaches. Some schools liked Green, and he had scholarship offers from Cincinnati and Youngstown State, but he wanted to play closer to his hometown of Laurinburg.
All three wound up at UNC as “preferred” walk-ons – meaning the coaching staff recruited them, and wanted them on the team, but that no scholarship was available. Hollins and Green arrived from prep schools – Hollins from Fork Union and Green from Hargrave Military Academy – while Schoettmer came from Dallas where he’d been a standout high school athlete.
Schoettmer said he had scholarship offers from “a bunch” of Football Championship Subdivision schools, and some lower-tier FBS schools. His parents, though, played in the ACC – his dad was a football player at Duke, and his mom played tennis at Wake Forest – and he was drawn to UNC, even though there were no guarantees he’d earn a scholarship.
“It was disappointing at first,” he said, “but you’ve got to move on and make the most of your opportunities.”
He appeared in every game in 2012 and finished last season with 85 tackles, second-most on the team. Now 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, he smiles at the memory of coaches doubting his size.
“I ended up gaining some weight,” Schoettmer said.
Keep working, or ‘I’ll take it’
He’s one of six UNC players who arrived as walk-ons but are now on scholarship. The others are punter Tommy Hibbard, long snapper Alex Marrs and kicker Thomas Moore.
Green started every game last season as a freshman and recently earned ACC co-defensive back of the week honors, and Hollins at the end of the last season was named the permanent special teams captain. That was a first for Fedora.
“I’ve never had, scholarship or non-scholarship, a freshman be selected as a team captain by his peers,” he said. “Ever. And that happened last year. Didn’t matter that he was on scholarship or not. That had nothing to do with it.”
It mattered to Hollins, though, when he learned he’d earned on a scholarship. It happened in May.
Fedora called him to his office, sat him down and broke the news. It wasn’t a long conversation, Hollins said, but it came with a caveat.
“A short conversation,” Hollins said. “Not much to talk about after he told me, ‘Now don’t get on scholarship and stop working, because I’ll take it.’”
Hollins is used to being without guarantees. So are Green and Schoettmer and others who arrived without scholarships but earned them over time, after proving themselves.
They arrived at UNC, perhaps, at the perfect time. Given the scholarship reductions, the Tar Heels were going to be reliant on walk-ons. Fedora might never have guessed the extent, though, or that some former walk-ons would prove to be as good, or better, than those who arrived on scholarship.
After a practice earlier this week, Hollins thought of his journey. From high school to prep school to emailing his highlight tapes to the scout team to special teams and, finally, to here – with a supporting role in UNC’s offense.
“It just shows that it’s possible,” he said.