Hobbs Nyberg catches a pass during BYU football spring ball. Nyberg is one of 36 walk-ons at BYU. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

BYU football walk-ons continue to battle even after tuition deal

Many within the college sports world have been buzzing about Built Brands partnering with BYU football to sponsor scholarships for the team’s 36 walk-on players. The deal has proven to be one of the most feel-good and viral sports stories of 2021, putting the football program into the national spotlight yet again.

The video of the announcement racked up over 21 million social media impressions after just two days, but you won’t see walk-on quarterback and “employee number one” Nick Billoups watching it anytime soon.

“I can’t watch the video of the announcement,” Billoups said. “Every time I watch that video I get emotional. I’m just happy to be part of a family and feel wanted.”

Billoups, a freshman transfer from the University of Utah, was the first player summoned by Built CEO Nick Greer to receive news of his scholarship, followed by wide receiver Talmage Gunther and ultimately all of the team’s walk-ons.

Gunther called the announcement “humbling” and “a miracle,” noting the stress of both he and his wife working to pay for school and support their growing family while facing the extreme time commitment of being a college athlete.

“My first thought wasn’t, ‘Yes!’ For me, it was more like, ‘Oh, thank heavens, my wife is going to be so happy!’ Now she doesn’t have to stress so much about finances,” Gunther said. “I grew up watching BYU and I’ve always wanted to come here and do whatever it takes and give whatever I can to help the team win.”

BYU has a long tradition of walk-on excellence, with notable stars such as Chad Lewis, Dennis Pitta and Ezekiel Ansah all enjoying success at the professional level after flying under the radar into Provo.

“I have this love for walk-ons because they sacrifice the most and they’re willing to pay for it in so many different ways. They’ll always have part of my heart in this football program,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “I’m glad that they can be elevated and have opportunities (to) feel ownership of this team.”

Earlier in fall camp, Sitake had expressed his wish that each of the walk-ons could be on scholarship, and less than two weeks later Built made it a reality. While the financial strains of tuition evaporated with the Built partnership, the team’s walk-ons aren’t looking to lose the fire that brought them to this point in the first place.

“For me, it’s extra motivation and a privilege to be here,” defensive lineman Mikey Petty said of the partnership. “I don’t want to waste it by just being a guy who wears a jersey. I want to make it worth it when I’m here and not let time pass by.”

Petty, who played with quarterback Zach Wilson at Corner Canyon High School in Draper, originally accepted a scholarship offer at Southern Utah but felt the need to reconsider after returning from his mission to the Philippines. Having watched Wilson and other peers succeed at BYU, Petty felt he could bet on himself and transferred to fight for a spot in Provo.

“I was really interested in BYU; it was where I wanted to be,” Petty said. “Really thinking about where I wanted to be and seeing my friends succeed, I decided to take a chance on myself because I felt that I could compete at this level and make a difference for the team.”

Like Petty, wide receiver Hobbs Nyberg also turned down scholarship opportunities to chase his own gridiron dreams. As the 2018 Utah 4A Most Valuable Player in baseball, Nyberg hoped to play both baseball and football in college but was unable to make such an arrangement. He originally committed to play baseball at BYU, but after two years in the program he felt the itch to take a swing at football again.

“I realized I missed football and I’m only in college once, so I thought that if I was going to make a change I needed to make it (right then),” Nyberg said. “I just decided to forfeit my scholarship to try something new and go back to what I loved most and it was definitely the right call.”

Once the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the baseball season in March 2020, Nyberg began working to get back into shape for football and found a spot on BYU’s roster, even seeing time on punt return duty last season and making a splash in fall training camp this year.

“I’ve always tried to play with a chip on my shoulder and prove others wrong, and it does make it easier to carry that chip knowing you’re just a walk-on,” Nyberg said. “I was fortunate enough to be put on punt return last year and try that and I’ll do anything I can to help the team.”

Fellow receiver Tanner Wall agreed that playing as a walk-on does add an edge to compete, but he was quick to point out that the team’s culture has broken down any barriers that might separate players based on scholarship status.

“I do think that sometimes walk-ons have a little extra motivation to prove the doubters wrong and to prove that we belong, but I think that’s just a competitive mentality and not a reflection on BYU’s team culture,” Wall said. “There’s no class system within the team when it comes to scholarship and non-scholarship players.”

Wall — a rare East Coast recruit for the Cougars from northern Virginia — spent the past year living with Petty and two additional walk-ons: kicker Justen Smith and defensive lineman Hunter Greer. While he doesn’t believe walk-on players are “wired differently,” Wall said their relationship as a unit is based on pushing and encouraging each other. “I see how these guys sacrifice every day and it’s very motivating.”

“The whole coaching staff is just looking to play the best 11 guys at any time,” Petty said. “We’ve had a lot of guys succeed who started as walk-ons and got put on scholarship, so we know a lot of guys who understand that mentality and are able to relate with you.”

One such success story is receiver Dax Milne, who entered the program as a walk-on in 2018 and led the Cougars with 1,188 receiving yards last season. Milne was drafted this past April by the Washington Football Team, has survived several rounds of cuts during training camp and is projected to earn a spot on the team’s final roster after an impressive camp showing.

“Dax set the perfect example for us all. He’s given all of us hope to know that anyone can make it no matter where you start out,” Nyberg said. “It just shows that hard work pays off.”

Wall credited current teammates Tyler Allgeier and Payton Wilgar as additional walk-on inspirations. “These are all guys I look up to who came in betting on themselves and elevated to the top of the depth charts. Success stories definitely help shape the walk-on culture of the team and inspire the rest of us. The coaches set the standard for the program as they value each of us, no matter the road we took to get here.”

While they fight for chances to contribute, the walk-ons see the opportunity they’ve been given as something bigger than just what happens on the field.

“Before he announced the tuition, Nick (Greer) told us about how big of a (BYU) fan he’s been his whole life, which for me was a great reminder of what a privilege it is to play at BYU,” Petty said. “It’s not something you can take for granted. So many people look at (BYU football) as a light.”

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