Tober, other walk-on WRs fill vital role

LOS ANGELES -- At San Clemente (Calif.) High in 2011, Christian Tober lived the football life that many high school players only dream about.

As a senior, Tober’s accomplishments included honors such as Cal-Hi Sports All-State second team, All-CIF Pac-5 Division first team, Orange County Register All-Orange County first team, All-South Coast League first team and Special Teams Player of the Year.

Yet despite the acclaim from one the nation’s hotbed areas of high school football, Tober's only college offers came from FCS schools. That didn’t quite appease his desire to play on college football’s highest level.

So when the USC Trojans offered him preferred walk-on status, Tober jumped at the opportunity and has never regretted his decision to wear the cardinal and gold.

“It’s really a dream come true because my mom and my dad went here and my brother went here, a walk-on his senior year, so I kind of grew up going through the Trojans lines,” said Tober, sporting a million-dollar smile.

As the Trojans complete their third week of spring practice, Tober’s relentless effort to make his team better has caught the eye and respect of his teammates, especially quarterback Cody Kessler.

“He’s a great guy and he works so hard,” Kessler said after Tuesday’s practice. “You saw it last year when he got time. He never complains and he’s not afraid to run 11 yards over the middle with (linebacker) Hayes Pullard waiting for him.”

Tober, who is just 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, knows his place on the Trojans roster, but his goals are team-oriented and that makes his desire to excel greater.

“I am just trying to step in wherever the team needs me and do whatever I can to help the team best,” said Tober, who as a senior high school wide receiver made 23 receptions for 612 yards (a 26.6-yard average) and five TDs on offense in leading the Tritons to the 2011 CIF Pac-5 final.

“I am not out there trying to earn a scholarship or anything. I am just working my butt off, and if it happens, great, but I am just trying to help the team in practice and maybe get in a game or two.”

Tober is among seven walk-on receivers with various degrees of experience. First-year head coach Steve Sarkisian is grateful to have them all aboard, especially with NCAA roster limits in place.

“You look at (George) Katrib, you look at (David) Mellstrom, and you look at Tober, and they’re doing good stuff for us,” Sarkisian said. “Like I’ve been telling the team from the day I got hired, everybody has a clean slate and there were no expectations for anybody.

“You’re going to earn what you get. Everybody on this team is going to have a role in some capacity or another. How big or how small is up to them. Those three guys are really working hard to find a role, whether it’s on offense or special teams. That’s part of the team mentality that we’re developing right now.”

And Tober has taken Sarkisian’s words to heart. In fact, he knows what advice he’d tell others thinking of accepting a preferred walk-on invitation from the Trojans.

“You have to work your way up the ranks and it’s not going to be easy,” said Tober, now a junior. “You’re going to come in at the lowest and keep working your way up, gaining people’s respect and trying to get to the top.”

Tober can recall the adjustment from his high school days to his first college practices. The step up in class was quite an awakening.

“The speed is very different and it took me probably at least a year to adjust,” said Tober, who has yet to declare an academic major but is strongly considering business.

Having adjusted to the speed of the game from his freshman season, No. 28 is now challenged by the speed of the new offense.

“Now, I need to get into the groove with this new offense’s fast pace because I am going in and out a lot,” Tober said. “I kind of get gassed a lot.”

Despite the fact that Tober rightfully laments that a walk-on can’t even eat scholarship meals with his teammates, the benefits still far outweigh some of the detachment from the team atmosphere a walk-on can feel, thanks to the NCAA regulations.

One of those positive benefits is taking the field and actually playing in the Coliseum.

“My first game on the field was here last season against Arizona, and I was pretty worried going up the whole week of the game,” Tober said. “I just came out finally calmed myself down a little bit and got a few plays in and it was awesome.”

While his personal goal for 2014 is to still catch his first pass in a real game -- something that’s not a problem during spring ball -- Tober still dreams of that surrealistic moment when he actually walked down the famed Coliseum tunnel for the first time.

“It was against Hawaii and it felt awesome,” Tober said. “My heart was pounding and it was a full stadium and sold out. It was crazy, just awesome.”

And no lack of scholarship or reduced benefits can ever take away those memories. Ever the optimist, Tober now looks toward the future where hope springs eternal, especially in spring ball.

“I feel like I am coming into my own, and I am just trying to help the team and do my best,” he said.

That’s old school, baby, walk-on or not.