Walking the Walk, Part I: The Unfamiliar Faces of Fighting Irish Football

Aug. 4, 2012: Safety Ernie Soto (42) and the Fighting Irish defense get ready for the 2012 season.

Every Irish fan knows Manti Te'o and Tyler Eifert. Many know Nicky Baratti and Jordan Cowart and Tyler Stockton, too. Did you know, though, that joining the Fighting Irish on the practice field today is a dreadlocked kicker raised in the Kenyan highlands named Jude Rhodes?

No. No, you almost certainly did not.

And why should you? There are only 11 Irish players on the field at any one time, and with 85 scholarship players already crowding the sidelines, and new classes of recruits filling out year-round, and 10 assistant coaches, and key athletes on opposing teams whose names and stats you want to know, what room is there for the lowly walk-on?

From Rudy to Ruffer, walk-ons have long held a storied place on the Notre Dame football team. Walk-ons are the guys who work hard, day in and day out, alongside the starters, making them better, without the glory (or the resources) that comes with the scholarship. They aren't on the NBC broadcast; they don't run with the first team in practice (though they may get worked by them); they don't line up on first down when the game begins. But they are, nonetheless, a crucial part of the Fighting Irish football team, and they have names and stories and roles to play in getting Notre Dame to game day.

In this two-part article, we consider the role walk-ons play and profile your Notre Dame Fighting Irish walk-ons for the 2012 football season. In Part I, we bring you profiles of the twelve walk-ons on defense and our one walk-on specialist - four of them are specially highlighted below - and tip our caps to WOPU Nation.

You might be surprised by just how much there is to say - and by how well worth your time it is to get to know these Notre Dame football players.

ON DEFENSE

40 S Connor Cavalaris (5'10", 194) - Sophomore from Lake Forest, IL

Like Eric Lee and Joe Schmidt, Cavalaris is a preferred walk-on at Notre Dame. He was an All-Conference, All-Area team captain at Lake Forest High School, where he sacked star quarterback and now Notre Dame WR DaVaris Daniels in a 2010-season shutout and started alongside (well, opposite) QB Tommy Rees in 2009. Cavalaris is indeed a genuine student athlete, coming out of high school sporting both a 4.42 GPA and a 4.53 40-yd. dash time.

86 DE Arturo Martinez (6'4", 250) - Junior from Miami, FL

Martinez, a high school tight end out of Belen Jesuit, earned a Congressional Medal of Merit, the Leo Suarez Courage Award, and honorable mention for a Silver Knight award, honoring graduating high school seniors who demonstrate leadership through service to the community. He was a captain on his high school football team and played basketball while maintaining a 4.8 GPA - and battling cancer. Martinez was diagnosed with lymphoma in 9th grade but continued to play basketball. When his parents finally allowed him to join the varsity football team his senior year, Martinez's immune system was still weak, but he helped his team reach the Class 3A state championship game. Just before that game, Martinez told the Miami-Herald, "I told myself I wasn't going to let cancer be an excuse to miss opportunities in life . . . . Playing football is one of the best decisions I've ever made. Win or lose, this has been the best year I've ever had in my life." He's now playing football at Notre Dame, working part-time, and studying accounting - and he is cancer-free.

67 DE Kevin Carr (6'7", 325) - Junior from Nashville, TN

Carr is just about the biggest guy on the team after walking on this spring. At Montgomery Bell Academy, he played on the offensive line, threw the discus, and helped bring home a state championship in the Science Olympiad; once at Notre Dame, he was a lineman for the Knott Hall intramural team - lucky for them.

54 LB Kevin Walsh (6'3", 220) - Senior from Bettendorf, IA

Walsh played linebacker at Davenport Assumption High School, where he was also a wrestler.

35 CB Joe Romano (5'9", 175) - Junior from River Forest, IL

Romano, a third-generation Domer whose grandfather played on a Fighting Irish national championship team, was the starting quarterback for his Fenwick High School team and pitched for the baseball team. When the time came, he applied only to Notre Dame; he plans to be a doctor. This spring, Romano drew some attention at the coaches' clinic during a kick-coverage drill: according to Matt Fortuna, "first, Romano got lit up by Justin Utupo, going to the sideline to recover for a few plays. Upon his return, Romano absorbed a vicious hit from Josh Atkinson, leaving the would-be tackler in his wake and firing up his teammates, who all gathered around him." Michael Floyd specifically thanked Romano (along with Jalen Brown) for making him a better player in his senior awards night speech.

Our Team, Our Story: Walk-on Wednesday - Joe Romano

36 CB Will Salvi (5'10", 176) - Senior from Lake Forest, IL

Will Salvi, like his brother, Chris (S) - who earned a scholarship after excellent special teams play as a walk-on - hails from Carmel Catholic High School. He joined the Fighting Irish as a walk-on this spring and played very well in the Blue Gold Game.

42 S Ernie Soto (5'9", 188) - Sophomore from Davie, FL

Soto graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas high school with a 4.8 GPA and a long list of tackles as a linebacker. He played for Keenan in interhall football at Notre Dame last fall.

38 ILB Joe Schmidt (6'0", 230) - Sophomore from Orange, CA

Schmidt, of Mater Dei High School, turned down scholarship offers from Air Force, Cincinnati, Villanova, and Penn and came to Notre Dame as a preferred walk-on in fulfillment of a dream he'd had since he was just a kid: to play football at Notre Dame. Schmidt's good friend Troy Niklas joined the Fighting Irish at the same time - their fathers played football together in college, too. When Schmidt visited campus before choosing to walk on, coaches Kelly, Diaco, and Elston each spent an hour with him, explaining how Schmidt would fit into the team and be able to contribute; according to Christian McCollum, when Schmidt "informed Diaco of his decision," he "was greeted with a big bear hug from the Irish defensive coordinator, who welcomed him to the family."

63 DE Grant Patton (6'6", 256) - Senior from Louisville, KY

Patton hails from Saint Xavier High School, where he threw the discus and shotput. He is a transfer from Holy Cross, is studying marketing at Notre Dame, and walked onto the football team just this past spring.

93 LB Connor Little (6'3", 225) - Sophomore from Lake Elmo, MN

At Hill-Murray High School, Little (the irony, I'm sure, is not lost on him) played football and threw discus and shotput. Little plays at the Dog linebacker position behind Danny Spond and Ben Councell.

46 S Eamon McOsker (6'1", 200) - Freshman from San Pedro, CA

McOsker, who ended up in quite a few of the photos published from the open practice on August 8 (and who has been featured in articles from prominent Irish football writers), graduated from Loyola High School and has joined the Irish as a preferred walk-on. McOsker, the Serra league defensive player of the year, has deep family ties to Notre Dame and told the Los Angeles Times, "It's been my dream to play for them." Now he'll have his chance.

49 S Blake Breslau (5'10", 185) - Senior from San Diego, CA

High school football and baseball standout Breslau's many accomplishments can't be summed up much better than this, from his town's Civic Association: "Breslau was honored as a scholar-leader-athlete at the 37th Annual National Football Foundation Awards . . . . Blake served as team captain for the 2008 season [at Francis Parker] and was the recipient of the Parker Power Award for Athletics, Academics and Leadership. He was named to the All-State Small Schools defensive first team [as the leading tackler for Parker (126 tackles), which won the San Diego Section Division 5 championship] and was a San Diego Union-Tribune All-Conference first team selection . . . . Blake has a 4.35 grade point average and is a two-time San Diego Union-Tribune All-Academic team selection. He has been a member of the National Honors Society and California Scholarship Federation since he was a sophomore. Blake is a volunteer in the NFL Junior Player Development Camps and at the Doak Walker Science Center. He completed an internship at Scripps Mercy Hospital. An active member of St. Gregory the Great parish, Blake serves as a Eucharistic minister and teaches an 8th grade Faith Formation class twice a month." Blake is now majoring in biology at Notre Dame. Student. Athlete.

SPECIALIST

39 K/P Jude Rhodes (5'10", 180) - Junior from Kapsowar, Kenya/Ojai, CA

Rhodes grew up in the Kenyan highlands and served as kicker and punter at Nordhoff High School (All-League, 2nd team). He was accepted to Notre Dame as a transfer student after missing out the first time he applied, and once here, quickly applied to serve as a campus tour guide. Rhodes has just begun participating in fall practice with the specialists; he is indeed the only one of them rocking dreadlocks at the moment.

WOPU NATION

The 23 walk-on players on the Notre Dame football team are absolutely worthy of note. On top of that, they themselves appear to have a good sense of humor about their status. They formed the loosely affiliated "Walk-On Players Union," or WOPU (complete with a presidential office and assumed power to appoint scholarship players as "honorary" walk-ons), and @WOPUnation (WOPU's Twitter handle) keeps pace with the star player's standard "rise and grind" tweets with their own clever jabs at their lot.

As the starters tweeted about getting ready for fall football camp earlier this month, so did @WOPUnation:

#wopucampchecklist papa johns gift card for @carlo44cal so that his people don't get me

— Notre Dame Walk Ons (@WOPUnation) August 3, 2012

______________

In Part II, we'll tell you a bit about the ten walk-ons on the Fighting Irish offense and examine what it is that the walk-ons do at Notre Dame, from spring practice to game week.

When the Irish take the field this fall, you will know some of those players who've labored alongside the starters to get them there - who have walked the walk - even if their impact goes, for the most part, unnoticed.

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