While preparing for a conditioning session last summer, Tommy Zozus received what he thought was an ordinary text from FIU Director of Football Operations Jed Keime — come to my office and sign some paperwork.
Not knowing what to expect, the junior long-snapper walked to Keime’s office - unaware that his collegiate career was about to change drastically.
“I walked in the office, still kind of unsure what to expect and I saw Jed, Joe (Hausman) and Coach (Butch) Davis and they all told me that I was on scholarship,” said Zozus. “I was speechless, it honestly felt like a dream and even to this moment it still feels unreal because so much pressure was lifted off my family with one text.”
Since Davis arrived at FIU, Zozus and 13 other walk-on players have been summoned to the football offices inside the R. Kirk Landon Fieldhouse to be awarded full scholarships. Defensive back Nikholi Jaghai and offensive lineman Obinna Nwankwo were the latest, receiving scholarships in front of the team last week.
Today we surprised Obinna Nwankwo and Nikholi Jaghai with scholarships! #PawsUp | #PantherPride pic.twitter.com/kNC4SpfSRx— FIU Football (@FIUFootball) September 1, 2020
For Davis, the value of walk-ons is one that stretches back to his time as an assistant under Jimmy Johnson at Oklahoma State.
“When I got to Oklahoma State in 1979, because of the NCAA sanctions that were handed down due to the previous coaching staff, we only had about 55 players left on the roster,” said Davis. “The first thing Jimmy had me do as the recruiting coordinator was start contacting high schools in Oklahoma to see if there were any decent players and we ended up taking 70 walk-on players that first year.”
Among that group was former New York Jets linebacker Matt Monger and ex-FIU defensive coordinator Brent Guy, who coached under Davis with the Panthers from 2017-2018.
At FIU, Davis is emphatic that walk-ons have been crucial to rebuilding a Panthers’ program that, before his arrival, hadn’t had a winning season in five years.
“When I got here, the talent level wasn’t where you would have liked it to be,” Davis said. “We had some talented guys, but there wasn’t any depth and that’s where we turned to finding a few walk-on players to see if there were players who could come in, compete and push for a scholarship.”
Former Panthers such as Bryce Canady, Brad Muhammad, and C.J. Worton, along with current eight current players, have become scholarship players after starting as walk-ons.
After his four-season stint as an NFL head coach and general manager with the Cleveland Browns, Davis sees the opportunity to add and evaluate walk-ons similarly to how NFL GM’s view undrafted free agents.
“I really view walk-on players like free agents after the draft — in the NFL you only get seven draft picks — in college you get a certain amount of scholarships, but you’re always going to have kids who are overlooked or maybe didn’t play the best high school team who just need an opportunity and that’s what this provides,” said Davis.
One of the most recent examples of that philosophy has been Zozus.
An undersized offensive lineman for part of his prep career at Charlotte High in tiny Punta Gorda, Florida, Zozus has been a success story at FIU, handling the long-snapping duties over the past two seasons and, in the process, becoming one of the top specialists in Conference USA.
“Tommy is an excellent long-snapper, he’s a hard worker who’s extremely dependable and is one of the top snappers in the conference.
Following the 2018 season, he was named to C-USA’s All-Conference Honorable Mention team for his play.
The 6-2, 220-pound Zozus started playing football in the sixth grade and quickly became enamored with the brotherhood that a football team can provide.
“I was bullied a bit in middle school, because I was a big kid but I wasn’t really athletic,” said Zozus. “When I started playing Pop Warner, I pushed myself to get into better shape and then by the time I got to high school, the guys I played with since we were little became like family.”
Among his youth league and high school teammates were current Panthers D’Vonte Price, Stantley Thomas-Oliver and Maleek Williams. Amid seeing his teammates and friends start to receive interest from college programs, he began to believe that his football career could extend past high school as well.
Zozus participated in an offseason camp for specialists run by Brandon Kornblue and a strong showing there earned him the distinction of being ranked the top long-snapper in Florida.
As a result of those efforts and an excellent senior season, several Division II and FCS programs recruited him to play in college.
However, because he was a specialist, none offered full scholarships and with each being out-of-state, Zozus’ family couldn’t afford to send him outside of Florida.
“As a specialist, the offers were all preferred walk-on or come prove yourself for a year and then we’ll put you on scholarship - but we just didn’t have the funds as a family to send me to an out-of-state school,” said Zozus.
While recruiting Price, Davis and then-special teams coach James Vollono brought Zozus in on an unofficial visit. Although a scholarship wasn’t immediate, they emphasized that he would have an opportunity to start as a long-snapper and that he was wanted by FIU.
“Coach Davis is a legend and to have he and Coach Vollono show that they wanted me, plus the guys on team started showing me love,” said Zozus. “The entire vibe felt like they really were a family and I felt accepted, it reminded me of why I started playing football to begin with.”
After his redshirt freshman season, the aforementioned text from Keime came.
Zozus was emotional recalling when he called his family back in Punta Gorda to tell them that he was officially on scholarship.
“I started tearing up — they both work from seven in the morning to six at night — it just meant a lot that they wouldn’t have to pay for my school on top of having to send me money for food,” said Zozus.
As a coach, rewarding a walk-on with a scholarship is one of the moments that Davis cherishes the most.
“It’s awesome, whether or not they go onto play a down of pro football, that’s extra,” said Davis. “What matters is they’re able to get their college education and take the stress off of their families.”
While it’s impossible to give every walk-on a scholarship, Davis notes that every player will be evaluated the same and given the same treatment as those who are brought in on signing day.
“We treat every player the same here, I really mean that,” said Davis. “I tell every walk-on, I can’t promise you a scholarship, but I want you to walk away from this experience 10,15,20 years from now feeling that was a positive time in your life and those that work hard enough — they’ll be rewarded with a scholarship.”