USC's football team has much to be thankful for as it prepares for the last two games of what could be a historic season.
The Trojans, who play their regular-season finale against Oregon State on Dec. 6, have clinched a share of their second consecutive Pacific 10 Conference title. They are assured a berth in the Rose Bowl, but are also second in the bowl championship series standings and could possibly play for the national title in the Sugar Bowl.
Earlier this week, three players were selected as All-Americans. A fourth might become a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
With all the marquee performers and accomplishments calling attention to his program, Coach Pete Carroll could easily overlook the more than two dozen walk-ons who have helped -- in minor and major ways -- to push the Trojans toward prominence.
But the coaching staff, and many of the 85 players on scholarship, say they would not be contending for the school's first national title in 25 years without contributions from players who pay some or all of their tuition.
"I'm really sensitive to those guys because I know the reason they are out here is because they love football," Carroll said. "Some guys aren't going to play very much at all, some guys can see a glimmer of hope, and some guys don't know any better and they just keep battling."
Most walk-ons were above-average high school football players who might have played significant roles for smaller schools had they not opted to attend USC.
At high-powered Division I-A programs, walk-ons mainly fill roles on the service team, which mimics an upcoming opponent during practice in the days leading up to a game. Most do not travel with the team to away games, and the NCAA forbids schools to pay for their training-table privileges.
"I don't know if I could push myself to practice and play that hard if I knew I wasn't going to play in the game," defensive tackle Shaun Cody said. "That just says something about their heart and their love for football. It's inspiring."
Senior lineman Spencer Torgan said respect for he and other Trojan walk-ons has grown since Carroll took over the program after the 2000 season. Under Paul Hackett, Carroll's predecessor, Torgan said most walk-ons were not allowed to be in uniform for home games and were discouraged from entering the locker room at the Coliseum.
"They were more concerned about space ... they told us not to go in," Torgan said. "That's part of the reason you're here. To be a part of it. Coach Carroll is making sure this is a team from top to bottom."
To that end, Carroll has every player suit up for home games and selects a service-team honorary captain for every game. Last week against UCLA, Torgan joined flanker Keary Colbert, linebacker Melvin Simmons and linebacker Lofa Tatupu at midfield for the pregame coin-toss, and again at halftime.
Every walk-on's dream is to earn a place on the field on game day and, eventually, earn a scholarship -- a feat three players have achieved since Carroll became coach.
Senior wide receiver D. Hale received a scholarship in the spring of 2002. Last spring, Carroll gave scholarships to senior long-snapper Joe Boskovich and redshirt sophomore punt-return specialist Greig Carlson.
This season, walk-on Collin Ashton appears to have put himself on a similar track.
Ashton, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound redshirt sophomore from Mission Viejo, started the last two games at weak-side linebacker in place of Simmons, a senior who is nursing a bruised fibula.
Ashton made eight tackles in the Trojans' 45-0 victory over Arizona and had five tackles in last week's 47-22 victory over UCLA.
"As a walk-on, you work your butt off to get your chance," Ashton said. "I was saying on the field after that [UCLA] game, 'That's the reason I'm out here. That's the reason I'm doing this.' "
Ashton, 20, said he received interest from several small schools after graduating from Mission Viejo High -- "Southwest Missouri and a couple of schools you've never heard of" -- but he was bound for USC, literally, from the day he was born.
Ashton's father, Mark, graduated from USC and so did several other relatives. Collin said he has attended every USC home game since his birth on July 24, 1983, a streak that grew to 122 games against UCLA.
Ashton's mother, Denise, recalled taking her baby son to the Coliseum in a "Moses" basket. As he got older, Ashton tossed footballs during tailgate parties before entering the stadium.
When he began participating in organized youth football, the family got creative to make sure he made it to the Coliseum by the end of the first quarter.
"They'd bring three of those gallon-sized plastic milk bottles that you recycle and fill them up with water," Ashton said. "After my games, I'd strip down, put a little soap on my head, rinse off and off we went to the USC game."
Ashton arrived on campus for training camp in 2001 weighing 193 pounds. He had spent years watching USC players, but remembers former fullback Charlie Landrigan providing his first real introduction to Division I-A football.
"That guy hit the ... out of me," Ashton said.
Ashton redshirted his first season and played on some special teams and during the waning minutes of blowouts in 2002.
This season, after an already thin linebacker corps suffered a rash of injuries, Ashton elevated himself into the mix for playing time.
When Simmons was declared out for the Arizona game, Ashton beat out scholarship players Bobby Otani and Salo Faraimo for the start.
"He's tough and he's smart," linebacker coach Nick Holt said. "He stuck it out and he got his chance.
"He's the epitome of what it's all about."
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*--* Name Hometown Pos. Yr. Collin Ashton Mission Viejo LB So. Chris Bocage Pearl City, Hawaii S Jr. Jay Bottom Newport Beach DL Jr. Mike Brittingham Santa Ana FB Fr. Will Collins Laguna Beach SNP Fr. Marco Chavez Pico Rivera LB Jr. Morgan Craig Newport Beach FB Fr. Mario Danelo San Pedro K Fr. Greg Farr Carlsbad S Sr. Alex Gomez Monterey Park CB So. John Griffin Saratoga TB Fr. Owen Hanson Redondo Beach TE Jr. Tommy Huff Bellevue, Wash. P Sr. Sean Kelly Gig Harbor, Wash. TB Fr. John Lanza San Diego OL Fr. Matt Lemos Redwood City S Jr. Steve Levario Jr. West Covina WR Jr. Kyle Matthews Agoura S Jr. Michael McDonald Newport Beach QB Fr. Forrest Mozart Los Altos Hills S Jr. Zach Sherwood Irvine P So. Justin Tolliver New Orleans CB So. Spencer Torgan Calabasas OL Sr. Nick Vanderboom Medina, Minn. TE Fr. Andre Woodert Los Angeles RB So. John Zilka Lake Forest, Ill. WR Fr.