Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Players and coaches huddle at the end of the BYU football spring practice and scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, March 25, 2017.
There was a time when if we had interest in a football player that had decent grades, we could just get him into school. That isn't the case anymore. We have no magic wand. —BYU assistant football coach Ed Lamb

PROVO — Brains and shoulder pads.

If you are a walk-on football player at BYU, you’d better be able to do more than walk in the classroom or you won’t ever walk into the locker room or onto the field.

Evolving academic strategies at BYU are becoming a gauntlet for BYU athletic coaches who target recruits, then try to get them admitted. It is far different from what other competitors deal with and not by a small margin.

Is it a big hill to climb? “It is,” said BYU assistant football coach Ed Lamb.

Is it a hurdle in recruiting? “Absolutely,” he said.

Is the standard for getting a walk-on admitted to BYU higher than the NCAA eligibility standard? “Oh, yes. We are talking about a much higher standard than the NCAA standard. This is hard,” declared Lamb.

As if meeting standards of the school’s honor code wasn’t enough, getting a walk-on admitted is a major achievement these days. A walk-on at BYU is going up against thousands of other admission requests each year, and doing it on his or her own.

“It is a dynamic that is a real challenge for us right now," Lamb said. "Our academic or admissions strategy with BYU changes every year. There was a time when if we had interest in a football player that had decent grades, we could just get him into school. That isn’t the case anymore. We have no magic wand. There is a daily conversation — a fight and struggle — some may say.

“We can’t use the term 'preferred walk-on' in the same way Utah or Utah State or Southern Utah can use it. We can’t guarantee admission to somebody who just qualifies to go to school anymore. Those other schools can say, 'Oh, yeah, we’ll take you as a preferred walk-on.' For us, we have to go through the entire admissions process. Even with our scholarship players, we have no guarantee for admission.”

This is a very big deal, bigger than many realize, as the university has evolved in the bar it sets for new students. Lately, it’s becoming very selective.

BYU walk-on home runs like Chad Lewis and Dennis Pitta are the goal.

“Some would call it a fight or struggle with admissions,” said Lamb. “We aren’t oriented that way. We want to be in line with admission policies and what they require. We want to be honest with ourselves.

“Many of our top recruits want to be here because of our academic profile and the academic prestige of BYU, so we have to take the good with the bad. It is really difficult because the term 'preferred walk-on' doesn’t apply to us like it does other schools.

“To be able to say that in a way that high school players and coaches understand is not easy. They already don’t have enough information about how recruiting works. Most schools (coaches and athletes), when told 'there is not a scholarship, but please come as a preferred walk-on,' to them that guarantees admission and a spot on the team. We simply cannot operate like that.

“It’s a completely different language for us," Lamb continued. "We are only using that term 'preferred walk-on' for those who can get into school on their own, who meet the academic profile, who are above the line of the average incoming freshman student.”

That is quite the standard.

This puts a whole new spin on the weight and respect of a BYU walk-on.

“In every case, there are going to be situations with a recruit where he is an advantage or a disadvantage — just like the honor code. It would be the same for any school like Stanford, Duke or Vanderbilt where there is a high academic standard for admission. The coaches aren’t running the show as to who gets into school.”

Has this spread to other BYU sports, women’s basketball, track and field, baseball and volleyball?

“I do know it is an ongoing conversation,” said Lamb. “There is no hard line that dictates there is this GPA or this test score (ACT, SAT) that you guys can go operate within without impunity or whatever you want to do.

“Every prospect is a new conversation whether you are a walk-on or a scholarship player. Obviously, we have a little more liberty with our scholarship players. We really are not interested in minimum qualifiers unless there are extenuating circumstances because we want players who can compete and excel and work hard in the classroom.

“But with the walk-ons, we’re talking about good students who we can’t guarantee admission to, so many elect to go elsewhere. We can’t promise walk-ons admission."

If recruiting to BYU wasn’t already tough, this makes it more uphill.

“This will significantly negatively impact the numbers of our walk-on program," Lamb continues. "So, the challenge for us is to make sure we influence the quality of the walk-ons we do get. We don’t cast a huge, wide net in recruiting at BYU because we are targeting a very small LDS audience with the bulk of our recruiting class. It doesn’t mean we are going to recruit with less effort than most schools. We have to do a lot of work to get the right walk-ons here.”

Still, there is a big effort to bump up the number of walk-on football players. This year BYU is engaged with about a dozen. Many have gone on Twitter and announced they have committed to BYU and done so without coaches even knowing about the announcements.

BYU cannot talk about these walk-ons and they don’t show up on signing-day lists. According to Twitter and a list by ESPN 960 executive producer Mitch Harper, these are walk-on commits, most of whom will serve LDS Church missions after high school: Alex Palmer, Skyridge, RB/CB; Tyler Allgeier, Fontana, California, RB; Dax Milne, Bingham, WR/DB; Tanner Wall, Arlington, Virginia, WR; Lincoln Bunker, Lehi, SS/OLB; Conner Ebeling, Corner Canyon High, FS; Collin Reid, Maple Mountain, WR; Hunter Green, Timpanogos, DE; Kade Moore, Lehi, WR; Jaylon Vickers, East, DB; and Nick Nethercott, WR/CB and Beau Robinson RB/LB at Mountain Crest.

Said Lamb, “At BYU, we have an unusual situation where a lot of our class may have grown up as BYU fans, maybe 50 to 60 percent in my experience, and we don’t have to work really hard to convince them.

“We do have to work incredibly hard to earn their trust and really it’s the same process with guys who are already in our program. We have to work hard from the time they commit to become the best players they can be. But we have to use that spare time to continue to work hard to get walk-ons who can get into school on their own. We need to make good judgments about who maybe we can help and influence with admissions and help admissions understand they can make it with our aid and help.”

Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said a new NCAA rule requires that walk-ons, whether recruited or not, who are in a program for two years and put on scholarship, become part of the school’s initial list of 25 signees.

Tuiaki said this makes BYU recruit kids to walk on because if they make it, they become a head count in a recruiting class. So, if BYU signs 18 to 25 in a certain year, they may actually recruit a dozen more that could be scholarship players and count after there’s attrition of other failures in a class.

“It doesn’t matter for us actually, the rule does mess up the walk-ons. We get kids to turn down other options they may have had from out-of-state schools or smaller schools,” said Tuiaki.

“One of the things we tell kids now is that if they walk on and they are good enough to earn a scholarship, we are not going to go out and recruit a prospect to take the spot they have earned, we’re just going to sign them. We say, ‘You’ve shown us, you’ve been in the system, you’ve earned it and we aren’t going to go and get anyone else for that spot.’”

Tuiaki says there are “developmental” gems out there, who, in time, things “just click” for. “A kid who is a 215-pound defensive end now becomes 275 and he becomes perfect if he’s got good grades and loves it here.”

Tuiaki said of the dozen walk-ons recruited, “every single one of them” had options to go elsewhere.

“We went back and combed through the state of Utah to make sure we didn’t miss the best player on each team. If they meet the standards we want in terms of height and weight and athleticism or whatever and are passed over, we seek them."

Tuiaki said a prime example of this is when he was at Utah State and the Aggies picked up athletes like linebackers Zach Vigil and Jake Doughty.

“They just walked on and ended up being phenomenal players and had a shot at the NFL,” said Tuiaki.

“There are so many kids out there who have the potential and there are others out there who were highly recruited who just don’t pan out because they were high maintenance or whatever. These guys can take their place. Most are gritty and I love those kinds of kids.”