FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas tight end Mitchell Loewen hoped for an answer to an important question when he sat in coach Bret Bielema’s office after spring practice.
Was there any chance he would be put on scholarship for 2013?
Unfortunately, the walk-on never got a definitive answer during the early-morning conversation. But Bielema’s tone left Loewen thinking it wasn’t going to happen.
“He was just beating around the bush,” Loewen said. “He really didn’t give me a straight answer. So I was like, ‘OK, I guess I didn’t get one.’”
Loewen was pretty surprised a couple of days later when Bielema called a team meeting as the Razorbacks prepared to move into the offseason. He complimented the team for what it had accomplished in 15 spring practices, laid the outline for the summer, and then said he had one final announcement to make.
Loewen and fellow walk-on Alan D’Appollonio were being put on scholarship.
“I was really surprised,” Loewen said in an interview last month. “It had been my dream since high school to earn a Division I scholarship. Here I am living my dream.”
Arkansas will begin preseason practice early next month and, when it does, will have two more former walk-ons among its scholarship players. Both Loewen and D’Appollonio will begin their third year with the program and were rewarded for their work as they prepare for important roles in Bielema’s first season.
D’Appollonio is on track to be the team’s starting long snapper for the third straight season, while Loewen is listed on top of the depth chart at tight end even though he missed much of the spring with an injury. They join another tackle David Hurd as former walk-ons who left the spring with first-team spots on the depth chart.
“Being put on scholarship was such a blessing,” D’Appollonio said. “It was something that coming here is something that I always wanted. My parents certainly were very happy as well not to have such a big bill anymore. It means a lot. The new coaching staff, they really appreciate what I’ve done and I guess I was rewarded for it.”
D’Appollonio, an Arizona native, was a backup quarterback early in his high school career when the team needed a long snapper. He gave it a shot and did well enough to begin attending specialist camps. D’Appollonio put together a highlight film and sent it to schools in hopes of finding an opportunity to play college football.
He eventually got a call from Arkansas, which wanted D’Appollonio to walk on.
“I didn’t have to think about it very long because the SEC is what I’d always wanted to play for,” D’Appollonio said. “It’s such a great opportunity. Also, we were at the top of the SEC and the nation at that point. So it was easy for me.”
D’Appollonio has been a steady snapper during his career, taking the reigns immediately in 2011 and working closely with place kicker Zack Hocker and former punter Dylan Breeding. He said hard work has led to success.
“Everybody always gives specialists crap … But you have to be productive,” D’Appollonio said. “You have to strive to get better and just coast through it and go through punt and field goal period and hang out for the rest of practice. You have to really try and get better at what you do every day.”
The same work ethic can be used to describe Loewen, who attended a football camp as a junior where he met someone who knew then-Arkansas coach Steve Caldwell.
Arkansas offered Loewen — whose father, Chuck, played in the NFL for the San Diego Chargers from 1980-84 — an invitation to walk on as well. Loewen accepted, traveling all the way from his home state of Hawaii to join the program.
“I pretty much threw a dart at the map and woke up here and I was here one day,” Loewen said about his arrival at Arkansas. “The rest is history.”
Loewen, who was originally placed at linebacker, didn’t get to play his first season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the first month. He went through a grueling rehabilitation, fought through homesickness, moved to the defensive line and finally found some playing time at fullback after Kiero Small was injured.
He played in five games last season and was eventually moved to tight end in Arkansas’ new offense. Loewen – who said he played one game at tight end in high school – believes he can make an impression in an offense undergoing a transformation under Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Cheney.
“I love it. I feel real good there,” Loewen said. “You get to hit guys and then you get to go and grab the ball and score a touchdown. … I feel pretty natural at that position. I’ve just got to work on my route running more because I’m not really experienced at that. But that will come with time and practice.”
Both admitted to being nervous when Arkansas’ coaching change took place last winter, though. Neither player had been promised scholarships and weren’t sure where they would stand in the pecking order when Bielema arrived in the winter.
So D’Appollonio figured the first two years were “all gone” and had to spend the spring making an impression. Loewen did, too, but grew even more nervous about his scholarship chances after suffering a sprained ankle early in preseason camp.
The good news: Bielema has a soft spot in his heart for walk-ons and noticed.
He traveled the same path at Iowa, working his way from walk-on to scholarship player during his career. While D’Appollonio and Loewen were inherited from the previous staff, Bielema said he’s always looking for talented players to walk on.
“It’s something that I think if you do your due diligence, if you recruit the high schools the right way, you can find kids that are a little bit under the radar and will be a nice addition,” Bielema said at SEC Media Days.
Loewen and D’Appollonio became the first two recognized under Bielema.
“We were both stoked because we came in at the same time,” Loewen said. “Both walk-ons. Both getting playing time. Now we’re both on scholarship.
“It’s awesome to just have someone else go through that with you.”
Each smiled while recounting the moment Bielema called their names during the meeting. Assistant coaches applauded. Teammates cheered. It was a scene neither will forget as they continue their work with the Razorbacks.
The goal now for the former walk-ons is to show they deserve the scholarships.
“The staff really did the right thing,” D’Appollonio said. “Some kids come in and they work, work really hard and they never really get any rewards from it. But coach Bielema kind of set the tone if you’re going to be a good student and a good athlete and you’re going to help us out on the field then you’re going to be rewarded.”