Every college football program relies to some extent on walk-on players. Many of these non-scholarship players focus their time on the scout team and improving the starters in practice. However, when major depth concerns arise due to injuries or other factors, walk-ons also need to be ready to play as needed. Below are just a few of the Illinois walk-ons who are worthy of recognition and might be interesting to watch over the next few years to see how they develop. Illinois doesn’t publicize which players are on scholarship and which are not, so it is possible that some of these players may no longer be walk-ons.
D’Ante’ Cox - WR
Cox attended the same high school as former Illini Wes Lunt in Rochester, IL before playing NAIA football at Missouri Baptist University for a year. During his time there, he racked up 37 receptions for 738 yards and 6 TDs, along with 2 rushing TDs. Clearly Cox has athleticism that stood out at the NAIA level. Hopefully his skills can translate to the Big Ten just as well as those of former Illini Clayton Fejedelem, who played in the NAIA at Saint Xavier prior to walking on at Illinois and eventually being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. Cox will have to sit out the 2018 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but will have three years of eligibility remaining starting in 2019.
Cam Miller - QB
His first ever play in a college football game ended up being one that he will no doubt tell his grandchildren about, though he might not mention the final score:
The shifty rising redshirt sophomore may see game action again when the score is out of hand one way or the other, but his athleticism could be useful at other positions as well.
Donny Navarro - WR
Coming from Valparaiso University in Indiana, Navarro put up significant numbers at the FCS level. He recorded 539 receiving yards and 5 TDs, with 16.8 yards per catch and 49.0 yards per game. He led all freshmen in Valpo’s conference in receiving yards per game, total receiving yards, and yards per catch. Navarro originally played at Mikey Dudek’s alma mater, Nequa Valley High School, and has formed a bond with the star receiver.
Nolan Bernat - DB
One of the players in the defensive backfield whose athleticism and tenacity really stuck out to me in training camp last season was former College of DuPage defensive back Nolan Bernat. In his freshman season at College of DuPage, he made 12 tackles, 2 TFLs, and had 6 passes broken up. He returns to Illinois as a junior next season, and could be a reliable option on special teams for the next two seasons.
Collegiate walk-ons in any sport are truly special, as they play the game for nothing more than the love of it. In many cases, their determination is rewarded with a scholarship later in their career. My hope is that a scholarship is in the future for each of these Illini walk-ons.