Succeeding as a walk-on requires all the hard work with none of the reward, sometimes for years at a time. Athletes are more likely to quit than stick it out.
Benton Wickersham and Bruno DeRose are two of the rare exceptions, and the No. 16 Boise State football team is lucky to have them.
The junior linebackers, who are both on scholarship now, will step in at middle linebacker for injured starter Ezekiel Noa when the undefeated Broncos face UNLV on Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas (8:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network). Noa suffered a season-ending ACL tear against Air Force on Sept. 20 and currently leads the Broncos with 28 total tackles.
“Having those two guys come in as walk-ons and then be good enough to earn scholarships and get significant playing time — and play at a high level — is just a big deal,” Boise State inside linebackers coach Zac Alley said. “I think it’s awesome and it’s a testament to the program and really to the strength of what the culture at Boise State does.”
The Broncos are handling the loss of Noa with a next-man-up mentality. They’ve also had the luxury of a bye week to help get some of the younger reserves up to speed.
“I think in the heat of the game, you just think very strategically. What happens next? How do you adjust to the situation?” DeRose said. “But then after the game, it hits you, and you start to feel really sad for (Noa). Then you’ve just got to realize that you have to step up. The last thing he would want is for you to not take advantage of the opportunity.”
Wickersham is listed as the starter at middle linebacker on Boise State’s most recent depth chart, with DeRose backing him up. Wickersham and DeRose each have appeared in all four games this season, recording 11 and two tackles, respectively.
“Bruno and I are like brothers. We do everything together. We’re always hanging out,” Wickersham said. “We’ve come up through this process together, and we’ve gone through things together. So it means a lot to be able to, me and him, go out there and help this team win.”
Every step along the way — from walk-on to special teams to backup — Wickersham and DeRose have proven their worth. Teammates expect more of the same moving forward.
“Whether it’s Benton, Bruno, whoever’s out there on the field, we have confidence in each other and we trust each other,” said Riley Whimpey, the Broncos’ starter at weakside linebacker. “... We’re with each other for however many hours each week doing football, and so whoever is going to be out there is going to get the job done.”
Wickersham (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) and DeRose (5-11, 223) have earned more playing time over the years through extensive preparation and above average football intelligence. Their knowledge of their own roles and the roles of the teammates around them on the defense makes up for what might be lost with the bulkier, faster Noa (5-11, 242).
“They know their assignments. They’re very, very smart, savvy players,” Boise State defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding said. “... These guys understand the game. I mean, you go into the meeting room, they prepare with purpose. They’re studying the film, they’re getting ahead on things, asking questions. I feel really good about where we’re at with those two guys.”
There’s less certainty about the readiness of the younger players behind them.
Redshirt freshmen Phillip Mills and DJ Schramm played against Portland State but did not record any stats. Whimpey’s backup is redshirt freshman Brandon Hawkins, and reserves Nick Provenzano and Tyler Crowe could get on the field as well. The Broncos had hoped junior college transfer Josh Booker-Brown would contribute this season, but he is academically ineligible.
“Those other linebackers, they’ve got to be ready to go,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “That position already had some depth issues, and we’ve got what we’ve got right now. Those guys are gonna have to play, and we’ve got to do a good job with them.”
BOISE STATE AT UNLV
When: 8:30 p.m. MT Saturday
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (35,500, artificial turf), Las Vegas
TV: CBS Sports Network (Carter Blackburn, Aaron Taylor, Jenny Dell)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: Boise State is 4-0 overall, 1-0 Mountain West; UNLV is 1-3, 0-1
Series: Boise State leads 7-3 (last meeting: Boise State won 42-25 in 2016 in Boise)
Vegas line: Boise State by 23
Weather: 84 degrees, sunny, light winds