Even without seeing a minute of action last Saturday night, Ronnie Espedal could take comfort in playing at least a small role in Washington’s 42-17 football victory over California.
As a walk-on freshman, the former Hoquiam High School standout is a member of the Husky scout team — the squad that simulates the opposition at UW practices. The 18-year-old Espedal plays outside linebacker and also performs on the scout team’s kickoff and kick return units.
Although he has not been officially been designated as a redshirt (sitting out the season while retaining a full four years of eligibility), he has yet to play in a Husky game or make the club’s traveling squad.
He does, however, suit up for home games (wearing No. 64) and accepts the challenge of his current role.
“That’s pretty much my goal every day, to make (the team) better and make myself better as well,” Espedal said.
Espedal represents an increasingly rare breed in major-college football — a true student-athlete. Not recruited by the Huskies as a Hoquiam senior last year, he is attending Washington on an academic scholarship.
He did not, however, simply wander into head coach Steve Sarkisian’s office on his lunch break and ask to draw gear. As what is described as an invited walk-on, the coaching staff knew he was coming.
The Evergreen 1A League’s Defensive Most Valuable Player as a senior, Espedal later earned all-state recognition as a linebacker. He was not heavily recruited, though, because of his size.
He weighed less than 200 pounds as a senior and, currently at 215, is still small for an outside linebacker. Nor does he possess the type of speed that would would provide a smooth transition to the defensive backfield.
Espedal is, however, rich in intangible qualities.
“Ronnie had the best instincts of any linebacker I’ve ever coached,” said Hoquiam head coach Rick Moore, who was the Grizzlies’ defensive coordinator during Espedal’s perp career. “Great attitude, hard worker, student of the game. He sees the game faster than others.”
Receiving football offers from Linfield, Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Puget Sound, Espedal said he seriously considered the first two schools before eventually accepting the academic scholarship from the UW.
“I felt like this would be the better opportunity for me in terms of getting a better education,” Espedal related. “If (football) worked out, it worked out.”
A connection with last summer’s Grays Harbor Youth Football Camp proved to be Espedal’s ticket to the UW roster. Former Washington and National Football League wide receiver Dane Looker, one of the camp instructors, was paired with Espedal in the pre-camp golf tournament and related that he had joined the Huskies as a walk-on.
He put Espedal in touch with former Husky quarterback Damon Huard, the chief administrative officer of the UW football program. Huard, in turn, made the necessary arrangements.
Even then, Espedal’s road to the Montlake practice fields was anything but smooth. It took three weeks for the NCAA to approve his paperwork. He also missed some practice time due to a herniated disk in his back.
As a three-year starter at Hoquiam, Espedal also faced a considerable adjustment to his role as a scout team player lining up against Division I starters.
“It’s a pretty humbling experience to be around people who are more physically gifted than you,” he acknowledged. “But I feel I have as much a competitive edge as anyone.”
He also deals with a caste system common to major-college football programs.
“You can tell they give scholarship guys a lot more attention,” Espedal said. “They have first call on (treatment) of injuries. They get food after practice and walk-ons have to pay for it. During practice, you don’t get treated that different.”
His interaction with Sarkisian has been limited to perfunctory greetings in encounters at team headquarters. Nor does he have much contact with defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Brandon Huppert, the assistant coach in charge of the scout defensive team, evaluates his players and reports to Wilcox.
“You have to do what they want you to do and somehow get their attention,” Espedal said.
That isn’t as easy as it sounds, since Espedal has to sacrifice his natural instincts for the greater good of preparing the starters for the game ahead. If instructed to line up in a running defense, he is strongly discouraged from anticipating a pass that he knows is forthcoming.
While he hopes to eventually move up the depth chart, Espedal’s football future depends, in large measure, on his academic progress. Although he has yet to declare a major, he is leaning toward studying finance or business management.
Espedal concedes that he may have to abandon football if his grades suffer. But he made it clear that he hopes to continue fulfilling both parts of his student-athlete role.
“I’m going to work hard and see what happens,” he said. “If I come close to the (grade) cut line, I might consider not playing. But I’m definitely going to keep a high grade point average so I can keep going.”
Rick Anderson is The Daily World sports editor. He can be reached at (360) 537-3924 or viaemai8l at firstname.lastname@example.org