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March 26, 2012Walk-on players have been a vital part of North Carolina's football program for decades.
But with North Carolina scheduled to lose 15 scholarships over the next three years due to NCAA sanctions, the opportunities for walk-ons to expand their roles will increase, as could the need have more non-scholarship players in the program.
The Atlantic Coast Conference, nor the NCAA have any rules regarding the number of walk-ons that a football team can carry, according to Brad Hostetter, the ACC's Associate Commissioner for Compliance and Governance.
"That's up to the instituation whether they limit the number of walk-ons,'' Hostetter said.
UNC football spokesman Kevin Best doesn't believe the school has any limits on the number of walk-ons it allows for football. The NCAA does limit the number of players allowed to participate in pre-season training camp to 105, but after that the total can be expanded.
With that said, I don't think you're going to see new head coach Larry Fedora add 75 walk-ons to his program. But it wouldn't be surprising for a higher number of non-scholarship players to be added to assist with practice preparation.
UNC had in the excess of 25 walk-ons on its roster last season, including several who saw significant action like linebacker Tommy Hefferman, punter Thomas Hibbard and placekicker Thomas Moore. Heffernan has since gone on scholarship.
Even more played key roles on special teams. Other former walk-ons like fullback Curtis Byrd and cornerback Pete Mangum, also played key roles. Mangum is also now currently on scholarship.
There are exactly 25 walk-ons listed on the Tar Heels roster for spring practice.
A couple of the more interesting walk-ons to watch this spring are quarterback Caleb Pressley from Asheville, offensive lineman Myers Colvin of Fayetteville, Canadian import Allen Champagne on the defensive line and safety Jeff Schoettmer from Dallas, Texas.
All four were red-shirts last season and play positions where depth is needed this spring.
One of those players could be the next David Thornton or Thomas Smith.
Thornton is perhaps UNC's most heralded walk-on. He came to Chapel Hill from Goldsboro without a scholarship in 1998, but eventually earned one after emerging as one of the ACC's top players by his senior year in 2001.
The Indianapolis Colts made Thornton a third-round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft and the next season he led them in tackles with 145. Thornton retired in August 2011 after nine NFL seasons.
Another star who came to UNC as a walk-on was cornerback Smith. Smith arrived unheralded from Gates County High School in 1989.
But he quickly became the leader of a secondary he nicknamed "The Rude Boys'' that played a big role in turning the program the Tar Heel defense around in the early years under Coach Mack Brown.
Smith went on to become a first-round NFL Draft choice by the Buffalo Bills. His played in the NFL from 1993 to 2001, including seven with the Bills.
Other walk-on success stories at UNC include linebacker Durrell Mapp, wide receiver Wallace Wright, center Lowell Dyer and placekicker Jeff Reed.
All those players came to UNC without the fanfare of heavily recruited athletes but managed still managed to forge solid careers. The NCAA sanctions could lead to other walk-ons of that caliber emerging in the next three years.