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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Antonio Brown, Clay Matthews, Baker Mayfield, Jordy Nelson, Josh Norman and J.J. Watt are just some of the one-time collegiate walk-ons that not only beat the odds and gained a college scholarship, but went on to play at the next level, as well.
Could Pitt’s Seun Idowu be next?
Idowu, a North Allegheny graduate first came to Pitt as a walk-on safety for then-head coach Paul Chryst ahead of the 2014 season. He redshirted in 2014 and in 2015, moved to linebacker while playing 10 games on special teams.
Ahead of the 2016 season, Idowu secured a spot on the two-deep and a scholarship with a strong training camp, battling with eventual starter Elijah Zeise until the final days of camp for the nod at Pitt’s star outside linebacker position.
Zeise was lost for the rest of the regular season just a few plays into the 2016 opener and Idowu was thrust into a starting role. It wasn’t an immediately easy transition.
Idowu started the final 12 games and finished third on the team with 74 tackles, but was frequently victimized in pass coverage despite his speed and athleticism, particularly early in the year. But as the season wore on, Idowu became more and more dependable, and when Zeise returned from his injury in 2017, he was moved to the other side of the field to replace the graduated Mike Caprara instead of replacing Idowu at star.
He had a breakout season in 2017, leading the Panthers in tackles (94), tackles for a loss (11.5) and sacks (five), and was named second-team all-ACC. Last week, he was one of Pitt’s two representatives at ACC Kickoff, which goes to show just how far the young man has come in his five years at Pitt.
An athletic linebacker that specializes in pass coverage, but still led his team in sacks and tackles behind the line? That sure sounds like an NFL prospect, and Idowu admitted that he’s thought about the possibility of beating the odds and playing at the next level, but it’s not on his daily agenda.
“That’s a good feeling and a good thought to have in the back of my mind,” Idowu said at ACC Kickoff last Wednesday. “Everyone wants to go to the next level. That’s one of the biggest goals in college football in general. … I’m really excited for that, but I want to make sure that I’m doing everything in between those steps to get there.”
It’s pretty rare for a walk-on to get a college scholarship in general. Pitt has handed out one or two a year since Idowu arrived. Long snapper Cal Adomitis was put on scholarship this spring, and fullback George Aston, kicker Alex Kessman and center Jimmy Morrissey all started out as walk-ons with the Panthers.
But even despite those odds, many former walk-ons have ended up in the NFL, from Brown right next door on the South Side to 2018 first-round pick Baker Mayfield. Idowu said that he feels the mindset that it takes for an under-recruited player to beat the odds is the same kind of mindset that’s required to have success at the next level.
“You’re put in an uncomfortable situation and you have to work your way out,” Idowu said. “Through that, you’re kind of molded throughout that whole process. The pressure that’s put on you, you find a way. … I think it lasts a long time because you know, without doing all that work, where you could be. That’s in your past. You don’t want to go back. You want to keep on working for more.”
Idowu has a little ways to go before that NFL dream becomes a reality, but if he continues the progress he’s made in two seasons as a starter with the Panthers, it doesn’t seem that he has far to go to make it happen.