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September 10, 2013
When Rutgers lined up in its first two-back set in Saturday's win over Norfolk State, two thirds of the backfield-fullback Michael Burton and halfback Paul James-was comprised of players who joined the Rutgers program as preferred walk-ons.
Burton arrived on campus in 2010 by way of West Morris Central High School, while James came into the fold one year later from Glassboro, the alma mater of Rutgers great and NFL alum Gary Brackett, himself a Scarlet Knights walk-on.
Both players have earned starting spots and scholarships-Burton picked up his from former head coach Greg Schiano following the 2011 season, while James was told this summer he would be gaining one-and endeared themselves to the RU fanbase with their production on the field.
Both players turned down multiple non-BCS Division I or I-AA scholarship offers to attend Rutgers, which their head coach feels may be harder than actually competing as a walk-on.
"It takes a very special person to do it. It's not an easy thing to do," said Kyle Flood. "It's not easy for them or their families to turn potential scholarships at the FCS level or even a non-BCS school in 1-A. And those guys did that. So it's not easy for those guys to make that decision initially and then like anything else, I don't know if there's any difference with fighting your way to the top of the depth chart. Because once they get on the field, there's no stickers to say who's on scholarship and who's not. This is not intramurals -- the best players play. I think the hardest part of the decision is the initial commitment and the commitment to do it."
James, who took over the feature role at halfback last week from his classmate Savon Huggins, a former heralded recruit, is tied for fifth nationally with 301 rushing yards in two games.
Coming off a breakout junior season at Glassboro, James held early offers from East Carolina, Marshall and a host of 1-AA programs. After an injury-marred senior season, he decided to pass over all of his scholarships and accept his preferred walk-on spot at Rutgers. Temple also offered James a spot as a recruited walk-on.
James' decision to walk-on certainly didn't come without a hitch but was ultimately one he felt he had to make.
"I have a single mother, so it was definitely tough financially leaving money on the table at other places, because I felt like I could play here and I deserved to be here," James said. "It was a hard decision to walk on but I felt like it was right for me.
"I talked to her [my mom] about it. She was going to do whatever I wanted to do because she said it was my decision and she backed me up 100 percent."
Burton, meanwhile, camped at Rutgers going into both his junior and senior seasons, the first time as a linebacker and the second time as a running back and linebacker. He stayed in contact with his recruiter, former defensive coordinator Bob Fraser, and in December of his senior season, Fraser told him he had a walk-on spot waiting for him at Rutgers.
Maine, New Hampshire, Towson, Lehigh, Lafayette and others had offered Burton scholarships, but he could not pass up the chance to play at a higher level.
"Once Coach Fraser let me know how excited they were and the opportunity I could have at Rutgers, I felt like I could definitely play at this level and I wanted to be with the best," Burton said. "That's why I ultimately decided to come here."
Burton turned heads with his bone-crunching lead blocks in 2011 spring practice and training camp, and by the middle of his redshirt freshman season, was splitting time with converted halfback Joe Martinek at fullback. He started the first four games of last season before a leg injury ended his campaign.
As a team, Rutgers is averaging 234 yards on the ground thus far, and the return of Burton at fullback has plenty to do with that.
"It feels great to be back. All the rust is gone, if there was any rust at all," he said.
At first glance, Burton's reputation as a hard-nosed, grind-it-out type player may appear to have stemmed from his status as a walk-on, but he said brings that approach with him in every aspect of life.
"I've just had that mentality my entire life, whether I was a walk-on or not," he said. "To be determined and no matter what I do, to give 100 percent. I don't think it necessarily always goes back to being a walk-on, because I do that in every part of my life, not just football. I might just be a walk-on in football, but in the classroom, relationships and things like that, I give my 100 percent in everything I do."