They say that opportunity knocks, but in the real world it’s not always that simple. Sometimes it just leaves the door cracked open for you and waits for you to push. And sometimes it requires you to just hang around so long that someone just gives you a shot.
West Valley grad Mitch Peterson bided his time as one of college football’s unsung heroes: a walk-on player in a Division I program.
It takes a big heart and a deep commitment to do what Peterson has done at Washington State.
The walk-on, by definition, is willing to pay the price to play college football. There are no scholarships to pay for tuition, books, housing or incidentals. Until recently they were even required to pay for their own meal at the team training table. If there was a way the NCAA could charge them by the inch for the athletic tape on their ankles, it would.
Most walk-on players eventually walk away. Occasionally, like in the movie “Rudy,” they get a chance to play in a game – usually on special teams – and simply toil away in obscurity.
Mitch Peterson is an exception.
Peterson is a redshirt-senior, meaning this is his fifth year in the program – a longer tenure than the entire coaching staff by two years. He earned his first varsity letter last year, appearing in eight games, mostly on special teams.
A former All-Great Northern League defensive back and wide receiver, Peterson played at safety for the Cougars through most of his career.
And then, the coaching staff had an idea.
“Mitch wants to play,” WSU linebackers coach Paul Valero said. “We told him he could get more playing time at (outside) linebacker – was he interested? He said yes. We said ‘Oh, by the way, you have a scholarship now – are you interested? He said yes.”
That’s the holy grail for a walk-on. Earning a scholarship.
Peterson took to the new position the way a dog takes to a new marrow bone. Before long he was even helping younger linebackers with their technique.
Technique has always been Peterson’s forte. Where many defensive backs will try to hit a receiver and knock them to the turf, Peterson tackles. He gets into proper position and he wraps up. He does it old school – the right way.
Valero likes to talk about outside linebackers – he calls it a hybrid position: part defensive end, part linebacker, part defensive back. To play the position well, you have to have speed, strength and an ability to make a tackle.
Before long Peterson was pushing starter Cyrus Coen for playing time.
And it came in the season opener in Seattle against Rutgers.
Peterson led the team in tackles against the Scarlet Knights with 12 solo tackles and four more assists, the only Cougar player to reach double digits. He added three more solo tackles, four total, against Nevada.
For a guy who struggled to get on the field for four years, Peterson found himself on the highlight reel Valero brought to town Monday for the Spokane Cougar Club luncheon.
Lining up on the line of scrimmage next to the defensive end, Peterson fired off the line to wrap up the Nevada running back in the backfield. It wasn’t splashy. It wasn’t flashy. It was, however, a text book example of how to make a tackle.
It’s what Valero called a routine play. Most of the time, he explained, those great highlight reel plays are just routine plays.
And right now the Cougars are looking for players who can simply make the routine play, down after down.
“We’re about making routine plays,” he said. “Routine play after routine play.”
When you stack routine plays on top of one another, you can build something good.
And sometimes all it takes to find players who can do that is to just give them the chance.
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