When he was a high school offensive lineman at Richmond Hill High, Joe Fusile made up his mind. They were based on three realities in his life – he wanted to be an engineer, he wanted to play football at the Division I level and he lived in Georgia.
“About my sophomore year, I decided I was going to Georgia Tech, kind of whether they wanted me or not,” Fusile said. “It looked like it worked out for me.”
You could say so. As a walk-on redshirt freshman, Fusile has earned his way into Tech’s starting lineup at right guard ahead of multiple scholarship players. On Tuesday, he was recognized as a nominee for the Burlsworth Trophy, given to the nation’s top player who began his career as a walk-on. Fusile follows in the footsteps of the award’s first winner, former Tech center Sean Bedford.
Fusile said he received some recruiting attention from Wake Forest and Stetson, Morehead State and Davidson – the latter three are in a non-scholarship FCS league – but nothing to sufficiently deter him from walking on at Tech.
“I think from a very early time period, it was very focused on coming here,” he said.
Last year, in his first year on campus, he was a member of the scout team. After the season, he developed in the weight room with the help of strength-and-conditioning coach Lewis Caralla.
“Coach Lew, he does a very good job of instilling in you that if you want to get on the field, if you show up in the weight room, that you’ll get opportunities on the field,” said Fusile, who is listed at 6-foot-6 and 316 pounds.
It was in preseason practice this season, Fusile said, that he began to realize his contributions to the team would not be limited solely to the scout team, but on the field. From the start of the preseason, Fusile was working with the first- or second-string offensive lines.
Regardless of Tech’s inexperience on the line, starting as a walk-on is no small accomplishment. While a team might carry about 25 walk-ons, a handful may elevate to play a role on special teams but only a few make it onto the two-deep offensive or defensive depth chart. Even fewer actually start.
On Tech’s depth chart for Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech, there are 26 players on the offensive depth chart. Of those, 24 are scholarship players, with Fusile and backup center William Lay the only walk-ons (though starting tight end Dylan Leonard is a former walk-on). Fusile is the lone starter.
Fusile started in the season opener against Clemson and started in seven of the Jackets’ eight games this season, missing only one because of a family circumstance. It’s likely been many years since the last time a walk-on started on offense or defense in a season opener for Tech.
“I think as the games have gone on, that nervousness has kind of become a little bit more manageable, but I think during that first game, once the first snap’s done, you’re kind of back to just playing football,” Fusile said.
Fusile has the highest season grade on the Tech offensive line from Pro Football Focus, which isn’t much of a reflection on his linemates on scholarships but is nevertheless a testimony to Fusile. He credited being ready for his chance, whatever shape it may have taken.
“Just put yourself in a position where, if they need somebody to fill in a role, that they can trust you to be that guy,” Fusile said. “I think that’s been the No. 1 thing, is just taking advantage of those opportunities.”
Lay, who has started 13 career games and played in 29, has served as an example to him.
“Will Lay is perhaps the most intelligent football player I’ve ever watched, and you just kind of get the sense from watching him operate he got his chances because he understood what was going on on the field,” Fusile said. “And if they needed a guy to fill in that role, he was able to give 100% to get the job done.”
Another walk-on receiving significant playing time is defensive tackle Jason Moore.
“J-Mo’s a great guy,” Fusile said. “I couldn’t name someone I enjoy more on the team. And especially because he switched to D-line, watching him evolve as a player as he’s gotten opportunities to, and especially in the weight room – he’s maybe one of the strongest guys I’ve ever seen – just watching him work in every day, it’s really something.”
Aside from earning a starting position, Fusile also is an electrical engineering major who earned recognition on the ACC academic honor roll after last season.
“Georgia Tech has just so many chances for people who want to work hard to get those chances,” Fusile said.
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