SEC football coaches united in support to keep walk-ons

DESTIN, Fla. -- SEC football coaches aren't sure what roster caps will look like under the new settlement that's poised to reshape college sports. Answers aren't due for months.

Collectively, the coaches made it clear Tuesday at SEC spring meetings that they want walk-ons to be part of college football going forward as the details of roster camps are hashed out.

First-year Texas A&M coach Mike Elko came out strongest against the idea of rosters being capped at 85 scholarship players.

"I'm strongly against it," he said. "I think it's absolutely against college football, what it stands for and what it's about. I think that would be a major problem, especially, when you look at legacies of Texas A&M kids that are going to get the opportunity to play football at Texas A&M potentially taken away from them.

"I think that's something's really bad for the sport."

Georgia coach Kirby Smart began his comments by saying that he's eager to learn about the settlement and what it looks like before forming definitive opinions on the issues. He did make clear that the mere idea of eliminating walk-ons is baffling to him, mentioning that coaches like Will Muschamp and Dabo Swinney started their coaching paths as walk-ons.

"I don't know anybody that would be against having walk-ons," he said. "At what cost does that bring us? I think it hurts high school football, and football as a whole, when kids can't even dream [for the opportunity to walk on]."

The issues hit home for other coaches. Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea is a former walk-on who now coaches at his alma mater. Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said his son, Brady, is a Texas walk-on. Elko coaches at a school where the 12th man, which began with a student coming from the stands to play in a game in 1922, is part of the school's lore and includes multiple walk-on traditions.

Sarkisian noted that Texas has 35 walk-ons and that the ability to walk on resonates in "what college football is about."

Coaches are months away from knowing what roster caps can look like. And in the upcoming months, commissioners and athletic directors will drill down on the specifics of how roster caps can work. There appears to be time and momentum for a common sense solution, as hard-capping rosters with a specific number of scholarship players and not allowing room for walk-ons would clearly be met with rigorous protest.

"I'm hopeful we can find a common ground on something that is a reasonable number," Sarkisian said. "Again, I'm not opposed to change. Change is going to happen. Okay? But hopefully we can find a reasonable number to where we still feel like we can operate at a high level as coaches and for our players."

Alabama coach Kalen DeBoer said he has had rosters as small as 105 players and as big as 135 throughout his coaching career. A bigger roster plays into health and safety, as coaches can limit starters' practice reps. They can also help maximize reps for depth players that contribute to development.

"There's a lot of variables that come into play," DeBoer said. "So first and foremost it comes to health, safety and efficiency and having a successful practice that I think you want to execute each and every day. That's important with the number that's on your roster."

While the fate of walk-ons loomed as one of the day's hot-button issues, coaches also made clear that they were eager to learn more from SEC officials as meetings unfold this week. Decisions on this issue may not come until after the 2024 season.

"What I've heard is that everything that I've heard is not to be trusted," Lea said. "I think that all that stuff is to-be-determined, and I want to know a little more about all of it."