But quarterback Matt McGloin and tailback Derek Day -- a pair of fifth-year seniors -- have very different opinions of being held up as examples of one-time non-scholarship players who have climbed to the top of the depth chart at key positions.
With NCAA sanctions stemming from the Sandusky scandal stripping Penn State of 40 scholarships over four years, the walk-on program is now that much more important to the program.
Day, who will make his first career start Saturday if sophomore Bill Belton has not fully recovered from an ankle injury sustained in last weekend's opening loss to Ohio, is happy to serve as a role model for future walk-ons.
“I haven't really thought about it, but hopefully they can use me as an example,” Day said. “My message to (prospective walk-ons) is just work as hard as you can, give it everything you can every day, and you'll be rewarded. … I'd be honored if they look at me as a guy to look up to.”
To some in the program, though, mere mention of the word “walk-on” brings with it negative connotations. No doubt sensing this, first-year head coach Bill O'Brien actually did away with the term. He now calls non-scholarship players, “run-ons.”
“These guys don't walk,” O'Brien said. “They run on the field, they sprint on the field, they bust their butts on the field. These guys are not walk-ons, they are run-ons. I know that goes against everybody's term for non-scholarship players for the last 100 years of college football, but that's just our term for them.”
Well, it is most of the team's term. McGloin, who has started 11 games the past three seasons and is the clear-cut first-teamer this year, bristles when asked about “walk-ons.”
“Well, 'walk-on' is just a stupid term to begin with,” he said. “I don't agree with it. I don't agree with the meaning behind it or anything like that. At the end of the day, you're a Penn State football player. You do the same exact things that everybody with a scholarship does. Unfortunately, they just don't pay for you to go to school, that's it.”
McGloin was just getting warmed up.
“I don't feel comfortable calling anybody 'walk-on,' he said. “I've never treated anybody differently because they are a walk-on or scholarship player. When you get here, you still have to earn the right to play, in my opinion. So I don't agree with 'walk-on,' 'run-on,' 'scholarship player' -- any of that stuff. It doesn't matter to me at all.”
McGloin earned a scholarship early in his career, when it became clear he would be in the mix for the starting quarterback job. Day picked up his scholarship before the 2011 season.
Prior to 2012, Day had seen most of his action on special teams. But the NCAA sanctions led to the transfer of returning starting running back Silas Redd (to USC). So Belton moved to the first team and Day to the second.
Belton listed as “day-to-day” for Virginia. Ironically enough, now the player nicknamed “D-Day” could well be poised to make his first start.
McGloin, who entered the program the same year as Day (2008), is confident his classmate can handle whatever the coaching staff asks of him. The quarterback even allowed himself to use the “W” word when talking about it.
“He was a walk-on just like I was,” McGloin said. “And he never got discouraged. He just continued to work harder and harder. It's definitely very emotional for him, the same way it was when I first started. He's going to be emotional, but at the same time he's prepared for it. I have no doubt he'll be ready to go Saturday.”
According to Day, there is a chance Belton will play. But even if he does, Day will get carries. He had eight against Ohio for 36 yards, which was by far the most time he has seen on offense in his career.
“I've been given an opportunity,” Day said. “I feel like I'm ready and I'm going to run with it.”
Spoken like a true former walk- … er … run-on.