49ers surprise: Coach gives scholarships to walk-ons

Among the more enjoyable aspects of Charlotte 49ers football coach Brad Lambert’s job is to call a walk-on player into his office and give him the good news that he’s earned a scholarship.

“It really doesn’t get much better than that,” said Lambert, who has 12 former walk-ons on his unbeaten team. “You see kids come in and work extremely hard, do the right things on and off the field. You’re trying to reward kids on all aspects of college life.”

Lambert has had that conversation several times over the past two seasons. The 49ers (3-0), who play at Elon on Saturday, are in just their second season of football and now have 12 former walk-ons on scholarship – including three starters and two key special-teams players.

“It was a dream come true,” said redshirt freshman linebacker and former walk-on Karrington King, who will start his first college game Saturday. “At first it’s kind of surreal. Then I almost teared up. I didn’t see it coming.”

King moves into a starting role after senior Caleb Clayton-Molby was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered last week against N.C. Central. King played one season at Charlotte Catholic after transferring from Harding, and helped the Cougars to the 2012 state championship game as an undersized (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) defensive end.

King didn’t have any college offers, but was encouraged by 49ers recruiting coordinator Phil Ratliff to walk on at Charlotte.

“We saw a lot of natural things in him,” said Lambert. “He’s a fast, physical guy and he’s smart – he’s a computer science major. He’s got instincts, because he played out of position in high school. It was easy to see all that last spring. I was hoping he’d have a good (preseason) in August. He did. I said, What am I waiting on?”

Lambert called in King and told him he’d earned a scholarship, one of 75 the 49ers are allowed to have this season as they transition out of the Football Championship Subdivision and into Conference USA in 2015 (when they will have 85).

“I didn’t see it coming,” said King, who has bulked up to 215 pounds. “It’s different for me now. I kind of exhaled. When I was a walk-on, every time I would mess up, I’d get down on myself. Now I feel more like I belong out there.”

King will start at inside linebacker alongside Dustin Croser, another redshirt freshman. Crouser is also in the lineup because of an injury to an upperclassman (junior Nick Cook, who has a severe ankle sprain). In the 49ers’ 3-4 defense, the inside linebackers relay in the play calls from the coaches, which means that responsbility falls to a pair of freshmen.

“I feel comfortable doing it, it’s what we practice,” said King.

King isn’t the only former non-scholarship player in Charlotte’s linebacker corps. Sophomore Nico Alcalde also was a walk-on, but impressed coaches enough to quickly earn a scholarship. He’s started all 14 games in 49ers history.

And being a walk-on at Charlotte doesn’t necessarily mean a player wasn’t a good enough in high school to receive a college offer. Seven of the 49ers’ former walk-ons transferred from other college programs. Offensive tackle Danny Book, a former Harrisburg Cedar Ridge High player who began his college career at Albany, transferred to Charlotte as a walk-on and has also started every game over the past two seasons.

As Lambert started the program from scratch three years ago, he knew he’d need to rely on walk-ons to help fill his roster. There even was an open tryout for Charlotte students on a practice field in the spring of 2012. Two of those students – linebacker Tyler DeStefani and H back Mitch Montini – made the team and are now on full scholarship.

“I really like bringing these guys in and giving them that news,” said Lambert. “I tell them how proud I am of them and that they’ve earned this. That’s something everybody needs to know: nothing was given to these guys, they earned everything.”

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