Ismail Showell did not receive a single NCAA Division I football scholarship offer coming out of Oakcrest High School, but Saturday he took the field for 11th-ranked West Virginia University in its season opener.
Showell is one of a handful of local players who are chasing their dreams as walk-ons, or non-scholarship players, at major Division I programs.
“Nothing against Division II and Division III schools,” Showell said, “but there’s nothing like being at a big-time program like West Virginia.”
Showell, a safety, could have gone to a Division II or III program and likely would have been a top player right away. Instead, he redshirted last year as a freshman and now plays on the top kickoff-coverage unit for the Mountaineers, who moved this season from the Big East Conference to the Big 12.
“As a walk-on, it’s tough in the beginning because you really have to earn everything,” said Showell, who had been a West Virginia fan since the days of Pat White and Steve Slaton. “You’ve got to prove yourself in the weight room and on the practice field. The beginning was tough, but I finally did it. I proved myself.”
Showell’s story is similar to those of two locals playing in the Big East: St. Augustine Prep graduate Greg Tobias, a sophomore at Syracuse, and Lower Cape May Regional alumnus Vance Matthews, a freshman at Rutgers.
Tobias, a running back, was lightly recruited coming out of high school because he was overshadowed by teammates Darnell Laws and Dustin Thomas, who now play on scholarship at William & Mary and Villanova, respectively. He was offered a spot on the team at Division III Moravian and drew interest from less prestigious Division I programs such as North Carolina A&T and Albany.
Instead of settling, Tobias aimed high. He enrolled at Syracuse, whose program he had always admired because of a history that included legends Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little.
Unlike Showell, who was guaranteed a spot ahead of time by West Virginia coaches based on his high school tape, Tobias actually had to try out. And the first time, in fall 2010, didn’t go well: He bench-pressed 225 pounds just once and was told to put on some muscle and try again.
“Anybody that knows me, they really didn’t see me that fall that much,” Tobias said. “I was determined to make it. I was at the gym every day I could go, every day my body could take it.”
The 5-foot-10, 169-pound Tobias came back in the spring and lifted 225 three times, and he made the team. After playing in three games on special teams last season, he will miss this year after microfracture knee surgery, but he has secured a spot on the team next season.
“I wanted to play D-1 level because I knew I could play,” says Tobias, who conceded that he eventually would have transferred to a lower-lever program if he hadn’t made the team.
Matthews didn’t have to try out at Rutgers. The 6-foot-4 receiver actually had committed to play on scholarship at Delaware, but he kept sending his game tapes to high D-1 programs, and finally Rutgers offered him a spot as a “preferred walk-on,” like Showell got from West Virginia. Matthews jumped at the chance.
“I’ve always been one to push myself,” Matthews said. “I didn’t want to take the easy way out playing college football. I felt, the highest level, why not? See if I can make it.”
Walk-ons often are rewarded with scholarships if they earn playing time, though not retroactively. Matthews, Tobias and Showell all said they hope to go that route.
But nothing is guaranteed. It takes hard work — likely harder than if they had played at smaller programs — just to stay on the team as a walk-on.
“You just have to carry that with you,” Showell said. “At the end of the day, you can’t get comfortable because at the end of the day you’re not on scholarship. You might get a role on the team, but you can’t get too comfortable.”
While their teammates undoubtedly work hard to get better and win games, it’s different for players who actually are playing to earn scholarships.
“I’m trying to earn money all the time, every day,” Matthews said. “I’m trying to come out here and earn money for the next year.”
Still, all three said their teammates treat them no differently.
“Everyone’s the same in there,” said Matthews, who is actually one of two walk-ons at Rutgers, along with Egg Harbor Township graduate Kevin Marquez. “You’re in the program. You’re here for a reason, because you can play.”
There are plenty of kids who can play but aren’t heavily recruited coming out of high school, Tobias said. He hopes to set an example for them.
“(People back home) are very surprised I’m playing at the Division I level,” Tobias said. “But they look at me and think if I can go to Division I, then so can they.”
Showell conceded that it might have been easier to go somewhere else. On “rare” occasions, he thinks about that.
“I just think, ‘Man, if I wouldn’t have went here, I’d have been a starter right now,’ “ Showell said. “But the game of football is my passion. … I love playing in front of 70,000 fans as opposed to 6,000.
“I didn’t want to be down the road in 30 years wondering if I could have played Division I ball. I’m doing it, so that question has already been answered.”
Contact Jason Mazda:
Local Division I football players
Football Bowl Subdivision
TE Jarrett Darmstatter (Barnegat): Redshirt sophomore played in one game last season and is in the mix this season, as tight end is an unsettled position on B.C.'s depth chart.
LB Dan Mastromatteo (Holy Spirit): Freshman had five other scholarship offers from ACC and Big East teams, according to Scout.com
NG Tyler Stockton (Linwood resident): Senior did not get into any games last season after playing in six in 2010 and registering one sack.
LB Glenn Carson (Southern Regional): Junior will start at middle linebacker after finishing fourth on the team with 74 tackles last season.
DT Austin Johnson (St. Augustine Prep): Freshman was Rivals.com's 29th-ranked recruit in New Jersey last season.
TE Ryan Morris (Barnegat): Freshman also had scholarship offers from Big East, ACC and SEC teams, according to Scout.com
CB Tejay Johnson (Egg Harbor Township): Expected to get significant playing time as redshirt freshman at cornerback.
DE Kevin Marquez (Egg Harbor Township): Freshman defensive end walked on to team.
RB Ben Martin (Absegami): Sophomore is expected to play mostly special teams, but he's also the third-string running back for the opener due to injuries.
WR Vance Matthews (Lower Cape May Regional): True freshman walked on and was impressive in training camp, coach Kyle Flood said.
LB Kaiwan Lewis (St. Joseph): Freshman had offers from 18 BCS-conference schools, according to Scout.com.
LB Anthony Sarao (Holy Spirit): Could see time on special teams as redshirt freshman.
RB Greg Tobias (St. Augustine Prep): Sophomore walk-on running back will miss this season after microfracture knee injury.
OL Jeff Whittingham (Atlantic City): Junior started for the first time Friday against Villanova.
DT Christian Brown (Bridgeton): Freshman was the 17th-ranked recruit in New Jersey last year by Rivals.com.
S Ismail Showell (Oakcrest): The redshirt freshman will start on the team's kickoff-coverage unit and is a backup for the kick-return and punt-return units.
Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA)
OL Domenic LaFragola (Holy Spirit): Freshman is expected to play center in college.
WR Jake Hartman (Pinelands Regional): Sophomore played in team's final three games last year and could see the field more this season.
Central Connecticut State
QB Nick SanGiacomo (Barnegat): Redshirted as freshman last year at Tulane before transferring. Is expected to p lay this season.
DB Ricky Tunstall (Bridgeton resident): Senior from Glassboro High School will start at free safety for second year in a row and is Blue Hens' active leader with six career interceptions.
RB Andrew Pierce (Cumberland Regional): A former walk-on, the junior is a two-time all-Colonial Athletic Association selection and was named to the preseason watch list for the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player in the FCS.
WR Brandon Favro (Egg Harbor Township): Redshirt freshman ran for a 5-yard touchdown in Blue Hens' spring scrimmage.
OL Jeff Haas (Ocean City): Redshirt junior walk-on is listed as third-string right guard.
TE Joe Fortunato (Mainland Regional): Freshman also played basketball and baseball at Mainland.
OL Jerron Searles (Atlantic City): Freshman was second-team Cape-Atlantic League all-star last season.
TE Chris Harris (Ocean City): Redshirt senior played in five games last season, mostly on special teams.
WR Scott Miller (Egg Harbor Township): Junior played in nine games last season and returned team-high nine punts for average of 5.6 yards.
LB John Barillo (St. Augustine Prep): Freshman was second-team Press All-Star last season.
C Andrew Baumgardner (St. Augustine Prep): Freshman was first-team Press All-Star last season as defensive lineman.
CB Leavander Jones (Atlantic City): Senior started seven games last season and had key interception in the end zone in first-round NCAA tournament win at Eastern Kentucky.
OL Andrew Anastor (Vineland): Will redshirt this season due to knee injury and have two years of eligibility remaining.
RB David Hood (Absegami): Redshirt sophomore played in 12 games last year, starting one, and ran for 326 yards and five touchdowns.
RB Nigel Jones (Holy Spirit): Freshman rushed for more than 4,000 yards in high school career.
OL Will Martin (Holy Spirit): Senior has been a backup since transferring from Sacred Heart two seasons ago.
OL Timothy Lamezec (Pinelands Regional): Junior missed second half of last season with injury but is preseason second-team all-Pioneer League.
TE Zach Fabel (Holy Spirit): Freshman was Cape-Atlantic League first-team all-star last year.
LB Ethan Gambale (Holy Spirit): Participated in last year's U.S. Army Combine as one of nation's top 500 high school seniors.
OL Corey Neal (Lacey Township): Junior played in nine games last season.
FB Justin Pandorf (Lacey Township): Senior has started every game the past two seasons.
WR Mike DeTroia (Barnegat): Six-foot-3 target redshirted last year as freshman.
DE Jordan Powell (Lacey Township): Freshman had two sacks in this year's U.S. Army All Shore Gridiron Classic between Ocean and Monmouth counties.
DE Robbie Zauck (Ocean City): Redshirt sophomore played in four games last season and had six tackles.
DE Anthony Stroffolino (Southern Regional): Senior played mostly on special teams last season.
QB Craig Cicardo (Lacey Township): Did not play last season as a freshman.
DB Pat Casey (St. Joseph): Sophomore had 10 catches last season for 103 yards.
TE Tim Goodwin (Holy Spirit): Played in 10 games last season as a freshman, mostly on special teams.
DB Gordon Hill (St. Joseph): Sophomore was second on team with 68 tackles last season.
QB Tim Little (Egg Harbor Township): Redshirt junior started last season, completing 233-of-400 for 2,465 yards with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
DB Stephan Thomas (Egg Harbor Township): Sophomore had 40 tackles and one interception last season.
DL Joe Tulino (Lacey Township): Redshirt sophomore could play on special teams.
WR Carl Harris (Atlantic City): Transfer from Rutgers played in 10 games last season.
DL Dylan Joslin (Lacey Township): Freshman redshirted last season.
OL Nico D'Angelo (Holy Spirit): True freshman expected to start career as backup.
PK Chris Gough (St. Augustine Prep): Sophomore likely to serve as kickoff specialist.
CB Craig James (Oakcrest): Returning starter as a junior, tied for fifth on team with 62 tackles last season.
NG Antoine Lewis (Mainland Regional): Junior was named to preseason all-Colonial Athletic Association first team.
WR Kenny Miles (Buena Regional): Senior was expected to be key contributor on offense but will miss eight weeks with foot injury.
OL Justin Rhinesmith (Middle Township): Redshirt freshman opens season as a backup.
S Joe Sarnese (Holy Spirit): Started at safety as true freshman last season and tied for fifth on team with 62 tackles.
WR Dustin Thomas (St. Augustine Prep): Redshirt sophomore playing receiver now after opening last season as starting quarterback.
WR Norman White (St. Joseph): Redshirt senior was named preseason second-team All-American by The Sports Network and is a pro prospect.
PK/DB Jarrod Molzon (Lacey Township): Filled in as place-kicker as true freshman last year due to injury, but also serves as backup in secondary.
LB Regan O'Connor (St. Augustine Prep): Freshman started for two years at linebacker and safety for the Hermits.
RB Dominique Williams (Bridgeton): Redshirt junior enters season ranked eighth all-time at Wagner with 1,982 career rushing yards.
William & Mary
QB Brent Caprio (Mainland Regional): Redshirt junior started five games last season and won three-man competition for job this year.
RB Darnell Laws (St. Augustine Prep): Played in five games last season as a redshirt freshman.
WR Matt Rubino (Holy Spirit): True freshman has size (6-foot-2, 191 pounds) to contribute early.