In college football, the attention naturally directs itself to head coaches, quarterbacks and All-Americans, as well as the occasional assistant coach.
But in those football programs, like at Mississippi State, there are 100-plus players in practice every day, a full staff of assistant coaches, graduate assistants, volunteer students, operations people, a training staff, equipment staff, recruiting staff, strength staff and a long list of others behind those head coaches. The nameless and faceless who make the program run, both on the field and off.
One such person for Dan Mullen’s team is one of the more important people you’ll never hear about, a 20-year-old student volunteer trying to break into coaching who is responsible for communicating plays to MSU’s quarterbacks on game days, among other duties.
Fred Walker, a junior at MSU, is an offensive signal caller, with his primary duty of coordinating communication with the quarterbacks in the game.
The process actually starts earlier in the week, as he and Brett Elliott (an offensive graduate assistant) sit with offensive coordinator Les Koenning as he reviews the game plan for the week, going over everything they may need, then entrusting them with the task of putting together the wrist bands for quarterbacks with the plays on them for that game.
Then, when game day hits, the process gets more serious.
“It starts at the top,” Walker said.
Listening on the headset as Koenning and Mullen prepare the next play, Walker waits for final word from the head coach. Once it hits, he’s immediately tasked with getting that play call to the quarterback on the field.
MSU has used boards before when running a more hurry-up offense, but in their current style of play, the plays are all communicated by hand signals coming from a group of three.
Well, you can never be too safe, it seems. At least one of the three is a dummy, signaling something completely different, while at least one of the three is the true live signaler. Sometimes there are two dummies, sometimes just one, sometimes Walker is signaling the real play, sometimes he’s the decoy.
It’s up to Walker to make sure all of that is worked out prior to the game, as well as to make sure the quarterback knows where the play is coming from.
Beyond signaling, and wristband making, Walker works some during the week with running backs Greg Knox and “pretty much anything he can do,” Koenning said.
For Walker, he’s just trying to learn as much as he can, get every bit of experience possible and prepare himself for his eventual career in coaching.
He seems well on his way, as it’s a bit unusual and impressive for someone at the age of 20 to have already earned a role like his.
“That’s fair to say,” he finally conceded.
But it’s part of who he is. He works for free, which is only motivation for him to work even harder.
When he got to MSU as a freshman in 2011, he initially started working with recruiting, then in the spring all three signal-callers spots were open.
So he jumped at the chance.
“I came in with the mentality of wanting to learn football and responsibility,” he said. “I just wanted to learn something that would help me be a valuable asset to this team. This is a profession about getting your foot in the door, so once I got that, I was running from there.”
Learning from Koenning has been an opportunity most as his stage of life are not afforded, and one he certainly doesn’t take for granted.
“Fred’s been around,” Koenning said. “He’s a young coach trying to learn. How we work, what we do in the office and how it all works. He understands how important it is to us and the time and the effort spent with the kids. It’s a great experience for him and he helps us in every way.”
Early in his final year, Walker suffered an injury ultimately ending his senior season before it had hardly begun.
He was upset, certainly, but in the pain he was given clarity.
“I felt like that was a sign, maybe I wasn’t supposed to play anyway,” Walker said. “I see these coaches around here and they laugh about it. Not everybody can play the game, but even those who can’t play it can sometimes coach it.”
Walker’s maturity and mentality are appropriate of someone much older than he, and those around the program can often forget where he is in life.
“They’ll be asking, ‘Where’s Fred?’” one person said. “Then they kind of remember, ‘Oh yeah, he’s an undergrad. He’s got class.’”
“But don’t let him fool you now,” Koenning said with a laugh. “He’s got a business washing cars one the side. He’s pretty high-priced, too, I can get it a lot cheaper some other places, but he does a really good job.”
Certainly, as a volunteer, Walker can use the extra money. At the very least, enough to take his girlfriend to the movies, he joked.
It’s not an issue of need, though. Walker’s parents have plenty of resources and ability to give whatever he would want, but again, he’s not the usual college kid.
“I don’t really take handouts,” Walker said, “and I like to try to work for what I have and I saw that as an opportunity. My dad brought me up where every Saturday we’d go out and wash the cars, so that’s just something I love to do when I’m not busy. My parents are teaching me to be a responsible adult, then I have these coaches who are like extra dads and they all treat me like their son.”
When MSU hosts Bowling Green on Saturday, Walker will be on the sideline as usual signaling the plays, going unnoticed while standing beside the most noticed person in the stadium.