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Bob Asmussen | Are walk-ons an endangered species in college football? Let's hope not.

Jun. 8—CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach Bret Bielema famously got his start in college football as a walk-on.

The Prophetstown native tried out at Iowa. Not only did he make the team, but he earned a scholarship, was a starter and eventually became a team captain.

Being a walk-on is an important part of Bielema's coaching origin story.

Now, there is talk that the new college football model may not include walk-ons.

"I think the walk-on world as we know it is definitely going to evolve and change," Bielema said during a Thursday press conference at the Smith Center, where the fourth-year Illini coach addressed a number of different topics. "More walk-ons will have to start off with scholarships."

Like other coaches, Bielema is waiting for some clarity from the powers that be.

"Everything from the viewing of scholarships to roster sizes, no one knows the answer," Bielema said. "Maybe a lot more fluid."

Bielema has watched as three of his former walk-ons are now on scholarship in the Group of Five or at FCS schools. Good for the players, but it cuts into his team's roster depth.

Bielema wants there to be level playing field. Or as close to it as possible.

"If you allow every school to have a roster of 100, some of the schools that have been in place for 50 years as powers, it's going to be easier for them to add more to their roster," Bielema said.

The move away from the ability to have walk-ons seems like a horrible idea for college football. Every school has a compelling walk-on story. The movie "Rudy" wouldn't have been made without the walk-on aspect.

We all love to root for underdogs and walk-ons are by their nature underdogs. Not valued enough, at least initially to earn a scholarship. Now, they give out an award to the top former walk-on, the Burlsworth Trophy. Past winners include Baker Mayfield, Hunter Renfrow and Stetson Bennett.

Last year's winner was Missouri tailback Cody Schrader, who is now with the 49ers after he signed with San Francisco as an undrafted free agent.

Two-way street

Bielema was concerned when the 2023 Iowa-Northwestern game, played at Wrigley Field, saw the teams share the same sideline.

With his team playing Northwestern at Wrigley on Nov. 30, Bielema has an ally in his quest for separate spaces: Ohio State coach Ryan Day. The Buckeyes play at Wrigley two weeks before Illinois.

"I've been basically reassured we will not be on the same sideline," Bielema said. "I love Wrigley. I'm a Cubs guy. I'm all there. Ryan Day and I have been on the same page since Day 1 on that one. It can be easily avoided, so there is no reason to do it."

It will be the second Illinois game at Wrigley, following the 2010 victory against the Wildcats. That game was played with the offenses going one direction. It worked all day for Illini running back Mikel Leshoure, who zipped for 330 yards.

Feeling better

A handful of key players missed the Illinois spring drills because of injuries.

The medical tent is now mostly empty.

"Everybody is actually cleared and running 100 percent other than (linebackers) James Kreutz and Kenenna Odeluga," Bielema said.

Odeluga is expected back to full-go later in the summer. Kreutz will be closer to the start of the season.

Never a dull moment

Illinois wrapped up the school year with a Memorial Day meeting, which set the stage for the summer workouts.

The Illinois coaches were on the road recruiting during April and May. The payoff could come soon, when Illinois welcomes official visitors to campus.

This weekend, players who have made commitments to other programs are stopping by to take a look.

"June's got to be big for us," Bielema said. "We don't do a lot of May visits just because our players are gone. For us at Illinois, our best recruiters are our players."

One key person beyond the players in Illinois recruiting, Pat Embleton, just received a promotion. He is now the program's general manager.

"Pat is very important in this world that we're in, knowing what's going on not only here, but everywhere else," Bielema said.

Illinois has added four new coaches to the staff: Archie McDaniel, Corey Parker, Clint Sintim and Justin Stepp. They create an opportunity for Illinois to expand its recruiting footprint.

"They brought in dynamic areas we hadn't been exposed to here," Bielema said.

Such as .... Texas.

"I had always tried to get in the Dallas area," Bielema said.

The staff ties there make it possible.