Walk-ons walking tall


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) – Two local kids, too small to play big-time college football – at least that’s what most coaches thought – will finish inspiring careers as starters in the BCS national championship game.

For No. 1 Ohio State, that player is cornerback Antonio Smith from Columbus.

For No. 2 Florida, it’s fullback Billy Latsko from Gainesville.

Among all the All-Americans and NFL prospects – such as Troy Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., Reggie Nelson and Brandon Siler – who will play Monday night, Antonio Smith and Latsko proved that even football factories need a few lunch-pail players.

“There’s no way to measure the will and the spirit of an individual, who might overcome whatever perceived limitations they have,” said Chuck Heater, Florida’s recruiting coordinator and cornerbacks coach.

The 5-foot-9 Smith couldn’t get a look coming out of high school from Ohio State. Even the Mid-American Conference schools wanted him only as a walk-on.

But his smarts paid off and he received an academic scholarship from Ohio State, which allowed him to walk on for the Buckeyes.

To Smith, a mechanical engineering major, it seemed like a great deal.

“It was more academics for me first,” he said this week. “I knew I wanted to excel at that, and athletics and football were kind of secondary. I wasn’t too frustrated at that point.”

Smith redshirted his first season and became a scout team warrior his second year, twice earning scout team player of the week – bet Troy Smith can’t put that on his resume. He also saw his first game action.

By his sophomore year he was a regular on special teams. As a junior he got his first taste of playing defense. A tiny taste. He played a total of 11 minutes in two games in the secondary.

“I was just trying to be the best person I can be, the best player I can be, and trying to contribute to the team,” Smith said.

Then came 2006, a very good year for Smith. His goal was to earn a scholarship and before spring practice even began he had one.

With the Buckeyes in need of a new starting secondary, Smith had a chance to compete for a job at boundary corner. He landed the gig and never let go.

Smith finished the regular season with two interceptions, two sacks and 66 tackles, made the All-Big Ten team and became the feel-good story of the year for a team that has been No. 1 since the preseason.

“You will never find someone that works harder than Antonio Smith,” defensive tackle David Patterson said.

“He is just a true, humble guy who does the job and doesn’t need all the media or all the attention,” All-American tackle Quinn Pitcock said. “He is going to have a bright future ahead of him.”

Latsko’s big break came in the form of a position change.

As a 5-foot-10 linebacker, he had no scholarship offers coming out of high school. He even shopped himself around to Central Florida and Division I-AA Georgia Southern and came up empty.

His father and grandfather played for Florida, and he really wanted to be a Gator, too. So he called the coaches and they were happy to have him as a walk-on.

Just because he was a long shot didn’t mean he couldn’t have lofty goals.

“I really wanted to be a starting linebacker,” he said during media day.

Coach Ron Zook’s staff had other plans. They were looking for a fullback and Latsko, a redshirt freshman at the time, was their pick.

“I’m kind of short for a linebacker,” he said. “At fullback, being short is not as much of a disadvantage. It’s an advantage. You’re lower than everyone else. You already have leverage on everyone. I think I’m a natural fullback.”

He immediately became the team’s primary fullback, not exactly a glamorous job.

“You hit everyday. It’s hard on your neck and your shoulders. You’ve got a headache everyday,” he said.

His reward for slamming into linebackers was a scholarship in February 2004.

When Urban Meyer became the Florida coach in 2005, his spread offense didn’t have much use for fullbacks, so Latsko was moved to H-back. The title was different, but the job description was the same – human battering ram.

Latsko had two catches for 21 yards and no carries for the Southeastern Conference champions this season.

“It’s surreal to me,” he said. “These last five years of my life have been really special to me.”

Watching players like Latsko and Smith succeed is one of the best parts of Heater’s job.

“A kid who makes it as a walk-on is a kid who demonstrates a great level of motivation,” he said. “A great attitude. Great effort. Will do anything you ask them to do. That kid always holds a special place for you.”