For Rice football, recruiting efforts go well beyond scholarship players. Freshman center Isaac Klarkowski is the latest in a growing line of walk-on successes.
It’s harder for Rice football to win than it is for some other state schools with deep pockets and fewer academic restrictions. Head coach Mike Bloomgren knew that when he took the job; he faced similar constraints in his prior stint at Stanford. To compete against the schools who don’t face those challenges, Bloomgren and his staff were going to need to find unique advantages.
When walk-on center Isaac Klarkowski took the first snap in the Owls’ most recent game against North Texas, one of those advantages was thrust into the spotlight. Finding and/or equipping walk-on players like Klarkowski, Chris Barnes and Tre’shon Devones — all of whom started against North Texas — is something Rice football likes to think they do better than most. The results so far speak for themselves.
A team that had their fair share of struggles protecting the quarterback this season with their staters healthy didn’t seem perturbed by the last-minute substitution in the heart of the offensive line. Instead, the low-profile, scout team defensive lineman became the hero of the Owls’ first home win of the 2019 season.
There were plenty of places and people Bloomgren could have keyed in on following his team’s win on Senior Day. The most notable was probably Treshawn Chamberlain, who arguably won the game with a stadium-shaking endzone pass break up. But Bloomgren opened his comments on the win with a nod to Klarkowski.
“I know many of you might not have known his name until he started on Saturday,” Bloomgren said. “He is a walk-on true freshman from Green Bay, Wisconsin who joined our team three days before camp. We’re sure glad he did.”
Klarkowski had a tough decision to make on his way out of high school. An All-State wrester from the midwest, he was entertaining multiple Big Ten wrestling scholarship offers when he got the call from Rice. Suddenly he was faced with a decision, which ultimately ended up with a commitment to play for the Owls with no scholarship promised.
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The out of state product is studying mechanical engineering with aspirations of working for NASA, who sets up shop not far from Rice campus. Klarkowski wants to be a rocket scientist and he’s a D1 caliber athlete. Somehow, someway, programs around the country didn’t prioritize him to the same degree Rice did.
The intelligence was crucial to his big moment on Saturday. With starter Shea Baker sick with the flu and backup Brian Chaffin injured, Klarkowski wasn’t notified he would officially be the guy until Saturday. He didn’t take first-team or second-team reps during the week when the team implemented their game plan.
Klarkowski’s training came by way of a crash course hotel room session with Chaffin. Arguably as well versed in this offense as any of the coaches, Chaffin’s fifth year in Bloomgren’s system gave him ample knowledge to impart. The pair moved the beds to the side of the room and drilled down on every play. That process took less than an hour. Then Klarkowski strapped on his pads and took the field to snap the ball for the very first time in a college game.
Every walk on doesn’t turn into a starter. In actually, the hit rate leans heavily toward microscopic. But as more players like Klarkowski show up, it might be time to give credit to where credit is due. Rice football has a way with walk-ons. And those walk-ons just helped win some important football games.