Walk-ons are obscure backbone of Clemson, Bama powerhouses

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — With one game left in his college career, Donavan Mosley hasn’t given up on his dream of finally playing for the Alabama Crimson Tide.

He’s certainly put in the time.

Four years of grueling practices. Four years of hitting the weight room. Four years of tedious meetings and solitary film sessions.

Yet Mosley knows the odds are against him. He’ll probably spend Monday night the same way he always does — a mere spectator at the far end of the bench, a forgotten walk-on who works just as hard as all those more talented teammates but who has never set foot on the field during an actual game.

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Four long years.

Not even a single play for his beloved Tide.

“I put the blame on myself sometimes. I could’ve done this different, could’ve done that different,” Mosley said. “But I understand where I’m at. I’m at Alabama. I’m not at some little school where the walk-ons can easily play.”

While most of the attention heading into the national championship game is focused on stars such as Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, it’s worth remembering those forgotten guys at the bottom of the depth chart — a dedicated group that usually pays its own way through school and puts in countless hours at practice, all while clinging to the hope of stealing a glance from the coach and maybe earning a snippet of playing time.

There are Rocky-like success stories, of course. Hunter Renfrow arrived at Clemson as a walk-on, quickly proved to be a highly effective receiver, and wound up catching the touchdown pass that gave the Tigers a national championship two years ago.

This will be Renfrow’s final game, as well. He’ll go out as one of the most beloved players in school history.

But that is the exception.

Mosley is much closer to the rule.

An undersized defensive back from San Antonio, Texas, he probably could’ve played at a lower-division school. But Mosley, unlike most walk-ons, qualified for a non-athletic scholarship at Alabama since his father served in the military. The idea of playing for such a powerhouse program was appealing — and, of course, he figured that somewhere along the way, he’d at least get into one of those many blowout games on the Tide’s schedule.

It never happened.

Playing time is especially precious at a school such as Alabama. Even when the Tide builds a big lead against an overmatched opponent, there are always plenty of four- and five-star recruits ready to step in.

The thought of quitting certainly crossed Mosley’s mind.

He could never bring himself to walk away.

“Every kid’s dream is to play,” Mosley said. “Especially when you’re seeing all your teammates have all this fun just playing the game. I haven’t played in a game since high school. But I’m surrounded by football all the time. It’s tough. Yeah, the winning is great. Being a part of this program is great. But at the end of the day, I want to play football.”

As his senior year was winding down, Mosley circled one game on the calendar.

In the next-to-last contest of the regular season, Alabama hosted FCS school The Citadel — basically a glorified scrimmage for a school of the Tide’s caliber. But Alabama sleepwalked through the first half, going to the locker room stunningly tied at 10. Even though the Tide finally hit its stride over the final two quarters, pulling away for a 50-17 victory, there wasn’t enough time to get Mosley in the game.

“I’m not going to lie,” Mosley said. “I cried a real tear after that game. I was hurting.”

At Clemson, the lowly walk-on is an especially revered member of the program.

That’s not surprising, when you consider the guys at the top.

Three decades ago, coach Dabo Swinney walked on at Alabama, earned three letters and even played on the Tide’s 1992 national championship team. Co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott took the same route at Clemson, both managing to get on the field for significant amounts of time (Elliott even started four games as a senior receiver).

There are plenty of players hoping to become the next Renfrow.

Carter Groomes is an undersized Clemson receiver (generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds) who concedes that he draws bemused looks whenever he tells a fellow student that he plays on the football team. But he managed to get 14 snaps last season as a redshirt freshman — even catching a 7-yard pass — and was on the field for a handful of plays at the end of a dominating victory over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl semifinal game.

“It’s always fun to just get in the game,” Groomes said. “I don’t care what I’m doing. As long as I get to play, it’s so much fun.”

A week ago, as the Tigers were preparing for the national championship game, Swinney called the team together before the start of practice. With some 30 seniors set to depart after the season, and not nearly as many recruits coming in, Clemson had a few extra scholarships.

Swinney informed Groomes, linebacker Regan Upshaw and safety Austin Jackson that they’re no longer walk-ons.

“I’m never going to forget that moment,” Groomes said, still beaming.

Mosley graduated last month with a business degree. In a couple of days, he’ll get started on life after football.

But until the clock hits zero Monday night, he’s not giving up on the idea of hearing his name called, of pulling on his helmet and running on the field.

Even if it’s just one play.

“I definitely hold on to that dream,” Mosley said. “Every game.”

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

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