AUSTIN — A few years ago, no one would’ve expected Kai Money to be at the center of a burnt-orange vortex inside Royal-Memorial Stadium.
Texas’s Kai Money catches a touchdown pass against UTEP during the first half on Saturday, Sept. 12 against UTEP.
But that’s exactly where the sophomore walk-on found himself last Saturday night, moments after eluding UTEP defenders and corralling quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s fifth touchdown pass. A genial mosh pit formed on the home sideline when the former Brownsville quarterback jogged back, and that festive feeling permeated the remainder of the ninth-ranked Longhorns’ 59-3 decimation of the Miners.
Coaches and teammates consider Money more than a feel-good story who incited some mid-game merrymaking in a one-sided affair. He won’t transform into Devin Duvernay or Jordan Shipley, but the wiry slot receiver who enrolled in 2019 could be the next success story to emerge from coach Tom Herman’s preferred walk-on program.
“I thought (his name) was made up when we first met,” Herman said. “But he was certainly the personification of his last name Saturday night, so that was good. I think Kai has proven that he’s a guy that can really, really help us. If circumstances dictate, we have no problem putting him in the game and knowing that he’ll deliver.”
Texas has unearthed a few diamonds in the rough since putting more of an emphasis on discovering high-quality walk-ons who could one day become scholarship players. Sometimes these recruits will eschew actual scholarship offers to chase the dream of being a Longhorn, and maybe one day a Longhorn who doesn’t have to pay full tuition.
And Herman can’t believe more emphasis wasn’t placed on locating under-the-radar prospects before he arrived in Austin.
“It was one of the things that when we got here we were surprised, to be honest with you, what kind of shape it was in,” Herman said of the walk-on program. “It was not in very good shape. It’s extremely important — we invest a ton in it.”
That investment has paid off.
Junior linebacker Cort Jaquess earned a scholarship last season and ended up starting in Texas’ Alamo Bowl rout of No. 11 Utah. The former Churchill star also started at middle linebacker against UTEP and tied for third on the team with five tackles and one tackle for loss.
Sophomore linebacker Jett Bush turned down several offers from Air Force, Army, New Mexico State and several other schools to walk-on at Texas. A few days after receiving a surprise scholarship, he recorded a tackle versus UTEP.
During the past couple of season. Herman has also awarded scholarships to walk-on linebackers Luke Brockermeyer and Russell Hine, along with defensive back/running back Mason Ramirez and defensive back Jamarquis Durst.
“What am I looking for? I’m looking for a guy that, maybe if he had another year or two to develop, would be a Texas recruit, maybe a late-bloomer, maybe a guy that needs another year in the weight room,” Herman said of his ideal walk-on target. “Maybe for whatever reason, one measurable might just not quite be there yet, but you see the potential for it to be there, then all the intangibles are there: the toughness, physicality, accountability, academics. You look for all those intangibles.”
Linebacker depth might still be an issue for Texas, though that sort of shortcoming also illustrates the value of scourging the state for recruits such as Bush and Jaquess. Even landing a player such as junior deep-snapper Justin Mader, a three-star prospect and ranked No. 2 at his position out of Magnolia, is a boon for the Longhorns.
But Money is unique in that Texas’ most valuable walk-on contributors under Herman have all played either defense or special teams. While it’s unlikely he continues to receive that much playing time with the Longhorns set to begin Big 12 play Sept. 26 at Texas Tech (1-0), Money’s presence and performance against UTEP should help show future walk-on targets they can become more than an anonymous practice squad player at UT — as long as they put in the time.
“I wish you guys could see the work that Kai Money puts in every single day,” Ehlinger said. “What an incredible team guy. He always puts the team before himself, works hard every single day. And it always seems like he’s open. For that to pay off today, I couldn’t be happier for him.”