Players paid, USC profited, from valuable contribution by walk-ons

USC quarterback Sam Darnold has a decision to make in the next couple of weeks: Should he go the NFL and make millions next year? Or should he put that off for one more season of college football?

Teammate Wyatt Schmidt is unburdened by such circumstances. As a walk-on who came to USC as a kicker, then won a spot on the team by teaching himself to snap for kicks, Friday’s Cotton Bowl against No. 5 Ohio State might be the biggest game he’ll ever play in.

“This is the NFL for me,” he said Wednesday.

The Trojans have 83 players such as Darnold on full scholarships this season. But contributions from a handful of walk-ons such as Schmidt — players who pay up to $70,000 annually in tuition and living expenses to attend USC and play football — were instrumental in the team earning an 11-2 record, a No. 8 national ranking and a spot in a major bowl game.

A former high school hockey star from Minnesota, Schmidt held for kicks in 10 games this season and snapped for kicks in two others.

Punter Reid Budrovich, who shares uniform No. 46 with Schmidt, averaged 42.5 yards on 49 punts this season, nearly 40% pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line.

And Chase McGrath, a freshman walk-on who wasn’t listed in the school’s media guide, made a 43-yard field goal to beat Texas in overtime and delivered what proved to be the winning points against Utah and Stanford.

“He won some games, no question,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said of McGrath.

When, at the team’s award banquet, the coaching staff rewarded McGrath and Budrovich with scholarships for next season “the whole team stood up, gave a standing ovation,” Martin said. “That lets you know how much we honor these guys.”

McGrath was a big-legged kickoff specialist at Mater Dei High, where a high-octane offense rarely stalled long enough to give him a chance at kicking field goals. He had a scholarship offer from Army and interest from other schools but chose to walk on at USC, where he beat out scholarship player Michael Brown for the kicking job during summer camp.

“USC was always my dream school,” McGrath said. “I knew what I was capable of doing. I felt like I could compete for the job.”

It was a level of confidence that impressed many teammates.

“Hard work pays off in our program for walk-ons,” offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn said. “All the scholarship players are important. But you get to college, the stars don’t matter. It’s about who’s working and who’s going to work to better themselves.”

For specialists such as McGrath, Budrovich and Schmidt, much of the work takes place on a side field, away from teammates. The situation engenders a special kind of camaraderie that can be rare on a team with more than 100 players.

“We’ve got a lot of free time together. We’re always lifting together. We’re all close with each other,” McGrath said. “It is a blessing how it all works out like that. Even having the opportunity to walk on at a school like USC is just tremendous. We’re all happy to take that.”

Schmidt agreed. His brother Foley was an All-Ivy League kicker at Dartmouth, and he also originally committed to play there. But he changed his mind and headed to USC, which has one of the highest tuition costs of any football-playing school in the U.S.

“The thing about being a specialist is you can get away with being on a team such as USC,” Schmidt joked, “and be the most un-athletic guy on the team at the same time.”

Schmidt’s journey to the USC football locker room is arguably the strangest of the team’s two dozen walk-ons.

A three-time state champion in hockey at Minnesota’s St. Thomas Academy, Schmidt gave up football to play junior hockey after high school in the hopes of earning a Division I scholarship as a defenseman. That didn’t happen, so he enrolled at USC, where it quickly became apparent that he would not win the kicking job.

“So I picked up holding,” the 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior said. “And I also had to learn long snapping because they didn’t have a backup. I learned that here. I never snapped a day in my life before.”

Two months ago, his ability to snap got him on the field against Notre Dame, his dad’s favorite team. It’s a story of grit and perseverance that Schmidt acknowledges is similar to that of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, another undersized, moderately athletic walk-on, who played for Notre Dame.

They made a movie about Ruettiger.

“I might not run that 4.3 40,” Schmidt said. “I’ve always known the NFL wasn’t a thing for me. [But] it gave me an opportunity to play in a Rose Bowl, a Cotton Bowl.

“That’s something I’ll definitely remember forever.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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