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J.J. Watt among players to go from college walk-on to NFL star

Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press
Jared Abbrederis aims to be the latest college walk-on to make the leap to high-level NFL player.

National Signing Day is Wednesday, but by no means does a recruit have to have four or five stars by his name to become a success. Heck, some guys can find success even if they don't sign at all.

In the 2014 NFL Draft, Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and Nebraska guard Spencer Long are the biggest names who began their college careers as walk-ons.

Here is a look at 10 high-level NFL players who started their college careers as walk-ons, listed alphabetically.

DE Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, Detroit Lions

Particulars: Attended BYU. Arrived from Ghana as a track athlete and never played football until 2010 as a Cougars sophomore. Was Detroit's first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

WR Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers

Particulars: Attended Central Michigan. A Miami native who played QB for a good Norland High program, Brown arrived at CMU after a year at North Carolina Tech prep school. He earned a scholarship one week into fall practice at CMU in 2007. Was a sixth-round pick by the Steelers in 2010.

K Stephen Gostkowski, New England Patriots

Particulars: Attended Memphis. As with numerous kickers in college football, Gostkowski was a walk-on. He earned a scholarship a week before the season opener in 2002, his freshman season. Was a fourth-round pick by the Patriots in 2006.

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C Nick Hardwick, San Diego Chargers

Particulars: Attended Purdue. Did not play high school football (but was a state champion wrestler) and joined the Boilermakers as a walk-on defensive tackle in 2001 as a sophomore. He earned a scholarship at the conclusion of fall camp in 2002, by which time he had been moved to the offensive line. Was a third-round pick by the Chargers in the 2004 draft.

LB Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers

Particulars: Attended USC. Despite coming from a football family with all kinds of Trojans ties, Matthews wasn't considered much of a prospect out of high school. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2004 and was a backup in 2005. He earned a scholarship during fall camp in 2006 but wasn't a starter until his senior season in 2008. Was a first-round pick by the Packers in 2009.

WR Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers

Particulars: Attended Kansas State. He was a quarterback and defensive back at a small Kansas high school, and walked on at K-State in 2003 as a safety. He redshirted that season, then didn't play a down in 2004. He moved to wide receiver in 2005 spring practice, earning a scholarship in the process, and his career took off. Was a second-round pick by the Packers in 2008.

TE Dennis Pitta, Baltimore Ravens

Particulars: Attended BYU. He began his career a walk-on wide receiver in 2003, then moved to tight end and earned a scholarship during 2004 spring practice. He spent 2005 and 2006 on a Mormon mission, then returned as a sophomore in 2007. Was a fourth-round pick by the Ravens in 2010.

CB Ike Taylor, Pittsburgh Steelers

Particulars: Attended Louisiana-Lafayette. He joined the Ragin' Cajuns as a junior walk-on in 2002, and quickly earned a scholarship. He was a tailback that season, then moved to corner as a senior in 2003. His athleticism led the Steelers to take him in the fourth round in 2003.

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SS T.J. Ward, Cleveland Browns

Particulars: Attended Oregon. Ward suffered a severe knee injury early in his senior season at powerhouse Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, and because he never had been a starter, colleges backed off. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2005, then earned a scholarship as a redshirt freshman in 2006. Was a second-round pick by the Browns in 2010.

DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

Particulars: Attended Wisconsin. There is a caveat to Watt's selection: He originally signed in 2007 with Central Michigan, which gave him a scholarship, as a tight end, and he played extensively that fall. But Watt, a Wisconsin native, always dreamed of playing for the Badgers. He left CMU and walked-on at Wisconsin in 2008, earning a scholarship while on the scout team that fall. Was a first-round pick by the Texans in 2011.

And while we limited this list to guys who played college football this century, there are a lot of former big-name NFL players who started their college careers as walk-ons, among them Arizona State's Adam Archuleta, Auburn's Kevin Greene, Minnesota's Karl Mecklenburg, Florida's Louis Oliver, Southern University's Aeneas Williams and Arizona State's Darren Woodson. And college coaches such as Kevin Sumlin (Purdue linebacker) and Dabo Swinney (Alabama wide receiver) were walk-ons, too.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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