Bradd Ellis walks off the field after Ohio University’s 21-44 lost against Purdue University on September 9, 2017 (Blake Nissen | Photo Editor)
During the week of the 2016 Mid-American Conference Championship game, coach Frank Solich pulled Jerrid Marhefka aside in practice one day. He had some good news.
The news was that Marhefka and his family would no longer have to pay for school.
Marhefka, a redshirt senior wide receiver, entered Ohio’s program as a preferred walk-on. Now, he is on scholarship for his final season of eligibility. He accomplished what he set out to do.
“It was nice to call my family and tell them they don’t have to worry about paying for school anymore,” Marhefka said. “That was nice, just getting the stress off their back.”
Earning a scholarship is something walk-ons at Ohio — preferred or not — strive for. The distinction between preferred walk-ons and walk-ons is subtle, the key difference being preferred walk-ons are guaranteed one of the 105 spots at the Bobcats’ fall camp.
Despite the distinction between the two groups, the road to earning a scholarship is equally as difficult for both.
“Without having a scholarship, every ball you drop, every play you screw up, your head’s down thinking, ‘Oh, I’m not going to get my scholarship now,’ ” Marhefka said.
The January Tryouts
Andrew Vu knew what the tryout would be like. It would be composed of combine drills like the 40-yard dash, broad jump, vertical jump and bench press.
Those drills show whether a player is athletic and whether he can accelerate with ease and jump high. Vu, a redshirt sophomore wide receiver, tried out for the team in January 2016 as part of Ohio’s open tryouts. The Bobcats hold tryouts every January, and students must be enrolled at Ohio’s main campus to tryout.
The process for a walk-on to make the team is different compared to a preferred walk-on. Preferred walk-ons must give a verbal commitment to the program and accept the invitation to fall camp. But when walk-ons tryout in January, and even during spring practices, they must leave a marked impression on the coaching staff.
Redshirt senior cornerback Bradd Ellis recognized this reality. He walked on to Ohio in 2014, and he earned a scholarship around the same time Marhefka did.
“The whole walk-on tryout is setup like a combine in that if you have the physical abilities, then (Ohio) can use you and we can develop you, and develop your mind,” Ellis said.
Vu had to show his physical skills, but he was prepared. In preparation for the tryout, Vu did plyometrics to help increase his vertical jump and broad jump. He ran a lot to improve his 40-yard dash, and he also did a hefty amount of lifting to increase his size and strength.
Though Vu trained for the tryout and had solid test numbers — he had a 36.5-inch vertical jump and bench pressed 225 pounds 13 or 14 times — he had a host of more challenges ahead.
Anytime between January and the end of spring practices, a walk-on can be cut.
But if a walk-on makes it past the end of spring and receives an invitation to fall camp, he will most likely have a spot on the team.
For a walk-on to be successful, his mindset must be clear and focused. Vu and other walk-ons at Ohio do not have to continue to fight for a spot every season. But they must have intrinsic motivation. They must want to succeed not solely because of an external incentive like that of a potential scholarship.
Having school paid for is the goal, but it is difficult to obtain. So to even have a chance to get to that point, a walk-on must have a level of determination based in sheer will.
“You can’t want to try out for the team just to be on the team,” Vu said. “You have to try out for the team to really feel like you can be a player for the team.”
Earn Playing Time, Earn A Scholarship
Progression has always been important for Bradd Ellis.
When he joined Ohio, he started playing on kickoffs; but he did not travel for away games. In his second year, Ellis played special teams and traveled to some away games. Last season, his third year, Ellis played a lot of special teams and started three games at cornerback.
This season, he is a starter, but he is in this position because of his constant progression. He has not fallen off.
“For myself, I think I earned a scholarship because I forced myself onto the field,” Ellis said. “I continually got better and better and better, and through some injuries I was able to go on the field and join the team.”
While Ellis believes he earned a scholarship because of his steady improvement, Vu and Marhefka have different views of how walk-ons earn scholarships at Ohio.
In Vu’s view, earning playing time nearly guarantees earning a scholarship.
“Usually the people that get scholarships are the ones that are playing,” Vu said.
Vu said that if a walk-on makes an impact on the field, then he’ll likely earn a scholarship. Vu was moved to slot receiver during fall camp, and he is on the scout team.
Marhefka played in seven games last season, and he had one catch for nine yards. The year before that he played in eight games and caught two passes for 78 yards.
He will be playing more this season, but Marhefka knows what it’s like to try to find a way onto the field. Like Ellis, he played on special teams, occasionally receiving time on offense.
“I think that’s how you really get your scholarship is fighting your way onto special teams and then finding your way into your position,” Marhefka said.
Marhefka was happy to tell his family that he achieved his goal of earning a scholarship. For the walk-ons at Ohio, that is the dream. Not having to pay for school is a plus, but the scholarship offers another type of security too.
No longer must Marhefka or any other walk-on have to excessively worry about a dropped ball or missed tackle.
“Now having (the scholarship), it’s a big chip off your shoulder just knowing that you can go out and play freely and do your thing,” Marhefka said.