January 28, 2009

Walk This Way

So, you want to walk on with the Georgia football team?

That's the question Joe Tereshinski routinely poses to most of the applicants who walk into his office, all with dreams of one day donning the Red and Black.

Part of Tereshinski's job is to determine if they fit the bill.

Since 1982, the former Bulldog letterman has worn many hats for the UGA Athletic Association, including his current title of Strength and Conditioning/Video Coordinator, to his duties of heading up the walk-on program for head coach Mark Richt.

"We always show these kids that you cannot look at Georgia and say I'm going to go there, I'm going to play there. You have to be a realist," Tereshinski said in an exclusive interview with UGASports. "I always tell them, here's what you play against, here's what you compete against, here's what mom and dad gave you, here's what the Good Lord gave you. I'm not saying you can't come, but I want you to know what you're facing. When I meet with these kids I really lay it out. Every kid that comes through here knows that it's going to be tough."

But still, they come.

Every Football Subdivision team is allowed to have 125 players on the squad, 85 of which can be scholarship athletes. The rest are made up of walk-ons, each confident that they can buck considerable odds.

Tereshinski explains that there are several ways this is done. For kickers, it's an open tryout held twice a year. The first opportunity occurs following the first practice of the spring.

"If a student is a full-time student that kicks, punts or snaps, they can come and perform on the field after practice, just as long as they are already enrolled," Tereshinski said. "They get to show what they can do and if they are as good as what we have or better we tell them to get a uniform. If not, we're honest, say thank you, but no thanks. It's a simple reason because we want to keep the best three."

Position players go about walking on a different way.

Players or high school coaches will send DVDs for coaches to examine in hopes of getting their foot in the door.

Three Bulldog assistants must then give their approval before a player is allowed to walk on. After that, an assistant will call the walk-on prospect following a background check which typically involves a telephone interview with the player's high school coach.

"We find that most of these individuals have above a B average and most have the Hope scholarship," Tereshinski said. "Most of them were the best players on their high school team, while a lot of them will have scholarships to smaller schools but want to play for a Division I school. They know they've got school paid for so they figure why not give it a shot."

Current tight end Derek Rich is one such player.

Rich actually signed with Connecticut and stayed a year with the Huskies before going through the process to walk on with the Bulldogs last spring.

He has been a key member of the Bulldogs' scout team while having to sit out last year due to the NCAA's transfer rule. Rich will have two years of eligibility left starting in 2009.

"The biggest thing for me right now is the terminology," Rich said. "It's a little tough, but Coach (John) Lilly is a good coach, and I'm always picking the brains and bending the ears of the other guys. I have probably been bugging them more than they'd like, but that's the only way you learn. Fortunately, I've been given the chance."

Many other walk-on candidates come to Tereshinski with offers from one of the U.S. Service Academies in hand.

"About 15 percent have appointments to one of the Academys but would rather walk on here," Tereshinski said. "I'll sit down with them and explain the process, talk to them and listen to their plans, but if one of them has an appointment I'll tell them to go to the Academy. Your degree is going to be incredible, your chances of playing will be better and that it will be a hard road if they walk on here."

With few exceptions, all walk-ons are redshirted, with current Bulldog kicker Jamie Lindley one of the few who have not.

Many more walk-ons figure to get a chance this spring.

According to Tereshinski, 38 current team members are coming off surgeries which will at best limit their performance when spring practice does begin in March.

"If you're a walk-on and wanted an opportunity, this is it," said Tereshinski, noting that the Bulldogs will only have three defensive ends able to take part in spring drills. "I recently had this young man, 6-foot-3, 245-pounds come in that wants to play. He's a defensive end. Now, he works out ever day, he's way behind, he cramps every day but he's fighting it. But the thing is, he'll be No. 2 on the depth chart in spring practice. He'll get 1,000 reps. With all these guys out, this is the spring for they walk-ons to show they can play."

Rich was one of 18 walk-ons out of 40 or 50 who applied who made it through the process to become members of the team last year.

Others, including Justin Fields, Chad Gloer, Zach Renner, Andrew Gulley and Josh Bagby each saw action last fall. One of the three healthy defensive ends for spring practice is a walk-on himself - West Georgia transfer Brandon Wheeling.

Ironically, Tereshinski's own son - Joe Tereshinski III - fits the mold as well.

Although he signed a scholarship out of Athens Academy, the elder Tereshinski said he gave his son the same speech he gives to the walk-ons that pass through his door.

"I told him don't come to Georgia. I tried to tell him he needs to go to Auburn, they were all after him, you need to go to Tennessee, go to Stanford," Tereshinski said. "But he always wanted to come here. Even though I laid everything out there, it fell on deaf ears. He wanted to come to Georgia and said 'Dad, I'll find a way to play.'"

Tereshinski's youngest son John was a bit more pragmatic.

When he got dad's speech, he agreed.

"He saw it, he said 'Dad, I can be there three years and never get to play. I'm not big enough, I'm not fast enough, but I can go to Vanderbilt or Wake Forest, redshirt and start for four years," Tereshinski said. "John goes to Wake Forest, redshirts and started for four years."

Of course, there are the so-called "preferred walk-ons," players seen by assistants over the course of the recruiting trails. Quite often, these players will also have scholarship offers from smaller schools, but will get invitations to walk on because coaches believe they can succeed.

However, the term "preferred" is a misnomer as far as Tereshinski is concerned.

"I don't like to use the word preferred because all walk-ons fall under the same boat. They're going to get the same equipment, they're going to get the same coaching, they're going to get the same treatment, they're going to go to study hall, they're going to get the same academic treatment," he said. "They'll get redshirted their first year. If he's good enough to start his first year he's going to get signed."

Evans High senior Reuben Faloughi is one such preferred walk-on.

Faloughi has a scholarship offer from Furman, long a powerhouse in the ranks of what used to be known as Division I-AA.

But like so many, Faloughi wants to play with the big boys and said nothing or nobody is going to stand in his way.

"People get caught up in the scholarship, rankings, and walk-on process. The only thing different is how my tuition is paid for, we still have to show it on the field," Faloughi told UGASports. "I turned the Furman offer down, and although I am keeping my options open, it would have to be something big for me not to go to UGA. 99.9% sure I will be in Athens this fall. Looking at the depth chart, I am going to go in there and bust some heads, and see what happens."

Georgia fans will recall Richard Tardits, arguably the greatest Bulldog walk-on of them all.

Tardits was a wide-eyed rugby player from France when Tereshinski introduced him to Vince Dooley's staff. He left Athens as Georgia' career leader in sacks with 29 before David Pollack set the new mark at 36 in 2004.

"The first day at practice he goes out and tackles the defensive guy. Everybody was hooting and hollering. This was during Oklahoma (drills)," Tereshinski said. "The next staff meeting I'm getting drilled. So I turn to Dicky (former defensive ends coach Dicky Clark). I say 'Dicky I need some help. We at least know he can go make a tackle.' Well, he winds up making All-SEC, makes the league (NFL) and almost wins the Florida game for us his senior year with seven sacks."

Tereshinski will also tell the stories of brothers Mike and Vince Guthrie.

Vince was on scholarship and Mike was a walk-on. After graduation, they went into business together and started a business disposing of hazardous waste in the Atlanta area. After being bought out, they became instant millionaires.

Tardits? He lives in France with a vineyard and develops golf courses.

Joseph Lee may never suit up for the Bulldogs, but he's going to get his shot.

"This guy (Lee) comes in wearing a full suit, a trench coat, the nicest pair of shined shoes that I've ever seen, trim and carrying a briefcase," Tereshinski said. "He comes up to me and says 'Coach, I want to walk on.'"

Naturally, Tereshinski asked why the eager young man was dressed so formal.

"He says 'Coach, I go to school the first week, I wear a coat and tie every day. I start strong, and until the last week, I'll wear a coat and tie. I finish strong,'" said Tereshinski, who was flabbergasted at Lee's commitment.

"That's what we preach. 'Finish the Drill.' Here's a young kid living it," Tereshinski said.

Lee, according to Tereshinski, stands 5-7 and "dripping wet" weighs 142 pounds.

"This kid looks like a Fortune 500 future guy. But the fire in his eyes, you can see the energy in his body, I want to give this kid a chance," said Tereshinski. "Any student as long as he's fulltime can come out and try out for any of the sports here."

Tereshinski soon learned that Lee's story went much deeper than he originally thought.

"I called his high school and not only did his coach say he can play, but he was the heartbeat of his entire private school," Tereshinski said. "I found out he was an overachiever, a dynamo. I also found out he had cancer in his arm and beat it twice.

"Here's a kid that God did not give a big body. I watch him in the weight room and he's using weights that our gymnastics team would probably use. I know he can't play, but he's trying to live a dream and I don't want to kill a kid's dream."

According to Tereshinski, there's really no way of knowing what you might have until you get a young man on the field.

"You can have a guy that's 6-3, 245 and think 'Oh my God, we've got someone who is going to surprise everybody. He's got the look but he can't play dead in a cowboy movie but I'm still going to get him out there," Tereshinski said. "I'm not going to tell him he can't, and neither is Coach Richt."

There are certain tests that all walk-ons have to pass before being allowed to actually suit up with the team.

First, he has to show the strength staff that he can get through the winter weight program, followed by Mat Drills and then spring practice with the rest of the squad.

If coaches see that the player is able to contribute, he'll be asked to stick around.

There's always the opportunity for players to get a second shot if their first chance does not work out so well.

"We've got two kids who gained 25 pounds, you can see they worked hard to get bigger, you can see they want to do this," Tereskinski said. "We have two governors of this state who were former walk-ons. I'm never going to crush a young man's dream. Does it hurt to let him try? Not a bit. You just never know."

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