Preston and Shakespeare, two former Oxford High standouts, are walk-ons at Auburn. Without benefit of scholarship money, they play on the scout team, which simulates the opponents’ offense and defense each week in practice.
In short, they get pounded on.
“It’s not as bad as everyone thinks, but it’s rough,” said Preston, who is in his second season on the scout team. “We kind of get after it. We try to give them a good look. I thought we had a tremendous scout team last year. A lot of guys who were on scout team last year are playing this year or have a big-time role. Scout team is very important at Auburn. I think we have another good one this year. We just try to get to work and make the team better.”
While they labor unseen by the general public, both players have earned the admiration of Auburn coach Gene Chizik.
“Two great kids who really do a lot for us,” Chizik said. “Ryan and Shake have been a huge part of giving our football team looks every week. The value in that is huge, especially where our numbers are right now. Our numbers are down, and we count on guys like that who show up every day and come to work.”
Even though Preston, an offensive lineman, and Shakespeare, a running back, were teammates at Oxford, they took separate paths to Auburn.
A year younger than Shakespeare, Preston got to Auburn first.
“My sister came here out of high school,” Preston said. “I visited her and really fell in love with the place. And playing through high school, I was an invited walk-on.”
However, Preston signed with The Citadel, the Charleston, S.C.-based military school that plays in the FCS Southern Conference.
He didn’t last long.
“I reported there for a summer and just hated it,” Preston said. “I was homesick. Auburn was always where I wanted to play. It’s kind of funny, but I grew up an Alabama fan. My parents were Alabama fans. But just coming to Auburn, it’s a different kind of place, a special place. I ended up leaving the Citadel. I called coach (Jeff) Grimes (Auburn offensive line coach) and the coaches here and they advised me to come back. I started in as a walk-on in fall camp of last year.”
Shakespeare, meanwhile, grew up an Auburn fan in a family with Alabama leanings, but his best offers coming out of high school were from Division II schools and junior colleges.
“I signed with Delta State and played there for a year, but didn’t like it,” Shakespeare said. “I dropped out, then went o Gadsden State and got my associates degree. I transferred down here in the spring of last year.”
Playing as a walk-on is by and large a thankless undertaking. Most walk-ons will never see the playing field in an actual game. Some will get a chance to dress out for a home game. A rare few will prove themselves over time and eventually earn a scholarship.
“It’s rough because you’re going against the No. 1 defense, but it’s a learning process,” Shakespeare said. “If you are doing well, it should make you better because you’re going against the No.1 defense every time.”
Why do it?
“I feel like I haven’t shown my best yet,” Shakespeare said. “I just go out every day and try to give my best look. You never know, somebody could go down. I just want to be ready.”
Preston, meanwhile, has dressed for every home game. He had his “Rudy” moment against Ole Miss, when he got in the game on the final series of Auburn’s 41-23 victory.
“I’m living the dream,” he said. “It’s the scout team, but I enjoy being on the team and the hanging out with the guys in the locker room and work outs and practice. To be at a place like Auburn and dress for games, it’s such a blessing. And even though I don’t have the ring, I can call myself part of the national championship team.”
Each summer, Chizik rewards several walk-ons with scholarships in what amounts to a team celebration.
Chizik understands better than most the sacrifices they make.
“They don’t do it for the glory and the glitz, they do it because they love football and they love Auburn,” he said. “So my hat’s off to all those guys, and that’s why we try to reward all of our walk-ons when we can if they’ve been here. I had one of them say to me, ‘Thanks for giving me a scholarship.’ I said, ‘I didn’t give you a scholarship, you earned it. I don’t give scholarships. You earn them.’ That’s what those guys do. Those two are really good examples of guys who come here and do it every day because they love it, and I have a very high appreciation for those guys, and a very high level of respect for them doing this for free.”