Georgia Tech’s newest scholarship athletes tell their stories

Georgia Tech linebacker Chase Alford had a dream fulfilled last Friday when he was put on scholarship by coach Paul Johnson. (GT Athletics/AUSTIN FOOTE)

Georgia Tech linebacker Chase Alford had a goal fulfilled last Friday when he was put on scholarship by coach Paul Johnson. (GT Athletics/AUSTIN FOOTE)

Chase Alford’s heart was pounding. At a team meeting at the end of Georgia Tech’s preseason camp last Friday, coach Paul Johnson called the Georgia Tech walk-on linebacker to the front of the room, along with A-back Isiah Willis to accept congratulations for being put on scholarship.

“He just called us and said we’ve got two scholarships open and talked about us a little bit and then called our names and we walked in front of the team and shook his hand,” Alford said. “It was pretty cool.”

The awarding of scholarships to walk-ons is a highlight of camp, for the recipients but also for teammates, glad to see their work rewarded.

“I think they’ve worked hard,” Johnson said of Alford and Willis. “They’ve been here a couple, two, three years. Chase is on almost every special team, or was a year ago. And Ike’s got a chance to be in the A-back rotation. They’ve earned it.”

Said quarterback Tim Byerly, who himself earned a scholarship after arriving as a walk-on, “Chase has worked his butt since he got here.”

Alford, from Heritage High, earned playing time as a first-year freshman in 2013 as a walk-on, no small feat. Largely playing special teams, he appeared in all 14 games last season, one of 30 players who can make that claim. The younger brother of former Tech linebacker Corey Alford, also a walk-on, Alford is an mechanical engineering major with a 2.8 GPA. Getting put on scholarship was meaningful in a variety of ways, which he shared in an interview Tuesday.

Q: What does it mean to be put on scholarship?

A: It was my goal coming in as a walk-on. Every year, I wanted to be put on. I gradually kept helping the team out more on special teams and making a bigger role on the team. It’s just a real big accomplishment and it doesn’t end there, either. I’m still working as hard as I was, and even harder.

Q: What kind of football options did you have coming out of high school?

A: The (service) academies, Air Force, Furman, smaller (Division) I-AA schools, but I felt like I could play at the (Division) I-A level. It was a dream of mine. That’s why I decided to come here.

Q: What has motivated you to handle both school and football while not being on scholarship?

A: Really, my parents and my brother. My dad (Dan) went here, he was a double-E (electrical engineering) here, and my brother played and did mechanical engineering as well. I just see the benefits with his new job and how it pays off in the long run. A good opportunity coming out of college.

Q: What does your brother do?

A: He works at Atlanta Gas Light.

Q: What does he do there?

A: He’s an engineering consultant there.

Q: Who was the first person you told?

A: I told my parents and my girlfriend, then my brother and sisters.

Q: That must be a pretty fun phone call to make.

A: Hardly anybody believed me when I said it.

Q: What does it mean from a financial perspective?

A: It means a lot. My parents, they’d always told me, not to put pressure on me, to get (the scholarship), but it was more of my goal. My mom just went back to work, and she hasn’t worked in 15 years. She went back to work, like, two months ago or so, so that was probably to help out a little bit, but it takes some stress off them. My dad, he does his own business, so it’s not like the job security’s always there. It was a big relief, I’m sure.

Georgia Tech A-back Isiah Willis played nine games last season. He had two carries against N.C. State for 18 yards. (GT Athletics/DANNY KARNIK)

Georgia Tech A-back Isiah Willis played nine games last season. He had two carries against N.C. State for 18 yards. (GT Athletics/DANNY KARNIK)

Isiah Willis

The following is from an interview at the start of camp with Willis, prior to his being put on scholarship. Willis is a Lassiter High grad and aiming to follow in the rather considerable footsteps left by Robbie Godhigh, the former walk-on who earned a scholarship and became a fan favorite and one of the best A-backs in Johnson’s tenure. Willis said he came to Tech with the goal of starting, which became more of a possibility when he was put at the top of the depth chart coming out of spring practice.

Q: Why was that your goal?

A: I just always feel like I can play the game. I came here because I wanted to play. I was getting an opportunity to come here as a preferred walk-on and get on the field. I started off with special teams and showed I was willing to work, and I just learned the offense and learned from the older guys and just tried to build off that. I always feel like you should aim high, so I aimed to be a starter.

Q: What’s it going to take?

A: I know with Coach Johnson, blocking’s a big thing, so that’s one thing I always want to get better at, and just continue to block. And then just continue to make plays, whether it’s blocking, running, catching the ball, encouraging the younger guys. Just doing stuff to make plays happen on the field, whether it’s with the ball or without.

Q: How are you at blocking?

A: I think I’m good, but I can always get better.

Q: How much did having a guy like Robbie go before you help you?

A: That was great for me. He’s actually from the same county as me, Cobb County, so I’ve seen him, knew about him for a little bit and with Coach (Mike) Sewak (who was involved in Willis’ recruitment), he told me how (Godhigh) came on and worked his way up the depth chart, became a starter. So that’s just always been one of my goals, just to follow his footsteps and even exceed them, if I can.

(Willis and Godhigh share at least one more commonality, beyond being A-backs from Cobb County who started out at Tech as walk-ons and gained scholarships. Both carry “III” at the end of their names, Isiah Willis III and Robert Godhigh III. I remember Roddy Jones once claimed that Godhigh was the original RGIII.)

Q: What would it mean to start?

A: It would mean a lot. Like I said, it’s been one of my goals. I wanted to take the opportunity to show that whatever you put your mind to, you can do it. So don’t use that “Oh, I’m a walk-on” (excuse) or anything like that to hinder you, but continue to work and strive for your goals. You can reach them, whether that’s in football or outside of football.

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