For those at home watching on TV that October afternoon in 2021, it seemed the football was in the air forever. For Payton Mangrum, the University of South Carolina walk-on who was racing down the Neyland Stadium turf to catch up with Kai Kroger’s fake-punt throw, there were other issues with which to contend.
“A lot of people don’t know that he threw the ball right into the sun,” Payton says. “I didn’t see it for a minute. You see the punt returner coming over to hit you, but you worry about that later. Catch the ball first.”
Payton caught the ball, eluded two University of Tennessee defenders, and stretched across the goal line to complete a 44-yard touchdown. Through his first two years with the Gamecocks, it was the only catch by the Greenville native, but it serves as an example of a non-scholarship player making the most of a rare opportunity in the spotlight.
The NCAA allows its top-level football teams to provide 85 scholarships, a tuition-free pass that has spawned a cottage industry of analysts and websites tracking players, offers, and schools. A top-level football roster can include as many as 120 athletes, however. From where do the others come? A few dozen hardy souls pay their own way to school for an opportunity to start at the bottom of the pecking order and work their way up, perhaps to have a moment in the autumn sun like Payton did that day in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“I love having those guys around. I want to use them in as many ways as we can,” says head coach Shane Beamer. “A walk-on is treated exactly like a scholarship player. The only difference is he’s not getting his tuition provided. In regard to who can help us produce and who can help us win football games, I don’t care if you’re a walk-on, scholarship, whatever. We’re going to play you.”
King-Demenian Ford is proof. The walk-on made it into the Duke’s Mayo Bowl victory over North Carolina. A former quarterback and wide receiver at Blythewood High School, he now contributes as a special teams performer and defensive back.
“Honestly, it was surreal,” he says. “I remembered all the work I put in and the prayers I had made. Being able to step on the field and play in that last game of the season really was a dream coming true for me.”
The 6-foot-2, 207-pound King is in his third year of school and second with the football team. He tried out his first year, but there wasn’t room on the roster. In 2021, as a redshirt freshman, his main job was to serve as a member of the special team’s scout team — a group that impersonates the kickoff and punt tactics of that week’s opponent.
“King Ford’s a guy that has an SEC-type physique,” says defensive backs coach Torrian Gray. “He has a good skill set. He’s been a great walk-on addition for us. He didn’t play a lot of defense in high school, so it’s a learning progression for him, but once he’s able to have it click for him, he’s going to be able to contribute for us.”
King says that having been raised in South Carolina, he always wanted to be a Gamecock and compete in the Southeastern Conference. He didn’t receive any football scholarship offers coming out of high school but still believed he could play at the SEC level. One of his fellow walk-ons has even higher aspirations.
“I have a dream to be in the NFL,” says running back D.J. Twitty. He considers SEC-level competition a surer path to the pros than East Tennessee State, where he spent his first four years. “Coming here as a walk-on, I’ve got to have a mentality of not letting anything hold me back. I’m going to go 100 percent in everything I do.”
The non-scholarship life is not new to D.J. He paid his way his first two years at ETSU before earning a scholarship for two years. He played in 19 games and gained 86 yards rushing there before joining the Gamecocks. At 6 feet and 225 pounds, he’s being auditioned for multiple roles.
“He came in during the spring and has done a really good job,” says running backs coach Montario Hardesty. “He’s shown versatility. He runs the ball really well. He blocks for the run. He’s shown some value on special teams.”
D.J. hails from Chapman High in Inman, the same school as Deebo Samuel, a Gamecock hero who now stars in the NFL. Montario remembered D.J. from high school, where he ran for more than 6,000 yards and earned a state championship trophy.
“He was a really good player,” Montario says. “I think he’s a guy who can help us this year. He’s definitely shown us some things, so I’m excited about D.J.”
Tight end Nate Adkins was D.J.’s roommate at ETSU and also transferred to the Gamecocks for 2022, earning a scholarship. He describes D.J. as a great teammate who keeps everyone laughing. “He comes in, he works hard, he loves his teammates, and everybody loves him,” Nate says. “He really brings the whole team together.”
D.J. ponders, “Who wouldn’t want to be a Gamecock?” Payton would certainly concur.
“Both my parents went here and graduated,” Payton says. “My dad went to law school here. My little sister goes here right now. We’re all Gamecock people.”
There isn’t a precise definition as to why non-scholarship athletes are called walk-ons. Visualize, if you will, a football practice from decades past. A sweatshirt-clad student comes over from campus unannounced and walks onto the field, cleats in hand, asking if he can join the squad.
To this day, college teams organize tryouts where these hopefuls can audition for the 35 or so non-scholarship spots. Recruiting has become so in-depth that many of these players are already known entities by the coaching staff. Some even carry the label “preferred walk-on,” meaning the staff will reserve a spot on the roster for them even if a scholarship is not available.
Payton is one such player. While lacking scholarship offers, he says several schools discussed him joining as a preferred walk-on. All things being equal, he decided to take the PWO route at the school he also preferred.
He joined the team in the summer of 2020 and got to play in that season’s finale at Kentucky. Though he’s a wide receiver by trade, he found a different niche in 2021, playing in all 13 games on special teams.
“Everybody wants to play their position, but you’ve got to take those little wins and keep moving on,” Payton says. “In the second year of walking on, playing in every game is not very common. I played on kickoff. On punts, I was a gunner. I blocked on kick return every game. I blocked on punt return every game. They’re small roles, but the fact that they could have played anybody in those positions but they chose me makes me feel good about myself because the work has paid off.”
While most of Payton’s work might dissolve into a blur of clashing bodies as everyone follows the flight of a kick or punt, his labors are not lost on the coaching staff. Special teams coordinator Pete Lembo describes Payton as a student of the game, a player in whom he places a lot of trust. On certain plays, he may have to account for multiple variables and “keep his head on a swivel.”
“In some of the roles he plays for us on special teams, the average fan might not notice how important they are,” Pete says. “But they are roles of great responsibility where he has to see the big picture, he has to understand the minute details, and he really has to know football and the things that can potentially happen.”
Pete says seeing Payton score on the fake punt against Tennessee was a thrill for him as well. Receivers coach Justin Stepp “was absolutely pumped” about the touchdown and says Payton deserved it. He’s generous in his praise for the young man who scored 43 touchdowns at Eastside High.
“That kid epitomizes everything about a walk-on,” Justin says. “He knows how to play every single position in the receiver room. On special teams, he plays all the hardest spots where you have to do a lot of thinking and you need a smart kid. He embraces his role. If my son would grow up to be like Payton Mangrum and handle himself like Payton Mangrum, my wife and I will have done a great job.”
As with D.J. at ETSU, a walk-on can transition to a scholarship slot if one becomes available. Long snapper Matthew Bailey and receiver Trey Adkins earned scholarships in 2021. A few weeks before the start of the 2022 season, Shane announced during a team meeting that Payton had earned one as well. A video released by the school shows an emotional Payton being mobbed by congratulatory teammates. He doesn’t want his first catch to be his last catch and hopes to earn playing time at receiver.
The life of the walk-on is celebrated in other ways as well. The Burlsworth Trophy is a national award given annually to an outstanding player who began his college career as a walk-on. It’s named for the late Brandon Burlsworth, who rose from the walk-on ranks at the University of Arkansas to being selected in the NFL draft. Safety Jaylan Foster and kicker Parker White are Gamecocks who have been nominated for the award in the past.
Two walk-ons from Spring Valley High School made an impact during the 2022 season opener against Georgia State. DQ Smith scooped up a blocked punt and scored a touchdown while also spending time at safety. Another former Viking, Hunter Rogers, took a snap on a field goal attempt and ran for a first down.
“Hunter did a great job on that fake field goal,” says Gamecocks kicker Mitch Jeter. “He was a receiver in high school, so he was taking it back to his old days a little bit.”
DQ was a quarterback for the Vikings and has transitioned to playing defensive back and on special teams. He describes his touchdown as “a special moment, knowing I’m a local guy.” In week three, the freshman earned a start against the University of Georgia. King also saw action against the Bulldogs, as did Darryle Ware, a walk-on linebacker from Fort Dorchester. Joseph Byrnes, a walk-on safety from Camden, saw action against Georgia State, and Payton continues to contribute each week as a leader on special teams.
Pete played football at the NCAA Division III level, where no scholarships are awarded. He also spent his first 10 years as a coach at non-scholarship programs. It played a role in shaping his coaching philosophy.
“I come from a background where everybody has value; everybody can find a way to contribute to your program and make it better,” he says. “So even when I got into coaching at scholarship-level schools, I always had the approach — which is identical to Coach Beamer’s — that you’re looking for the best guys. You’re trying to develop every single guy you have. You treat everybody the same way.”
A football scholarship is a valuable thing, considering the cost of college tuition and all that is invested in operating an SEC-caliber program. Shane says a spot on the roster must be earned, and Pete says earning a spot is becoming harder and harder as the Gamecocks improve their depth of talent. So even those student-athletes who aren’t getting one of those 85 golden tickets are earning something as well.