UA's Jared Baker runs against South Carolina State early last season. He ended the season with 85 yards on 20 carries.


Jared Tevis wears shoulder pads underneath his No. 38 practice jersey, so it's impossible to check for the chip.

You know, the shoulder appendage that (supposedly) makes all undersized walk-ons run a little faster, hit a little harder and overcome all odds. The thing that took "Rudy" from practice scrub to movie hero.

Tevis, the Arizona Wildcats' sophomore safety, is straight out of central casting for the undersized, big-hearted hero. But he's not buying the storyline.

"Walk-ons play with a chip on their shoulders, but it's really more than that," he said. "A lot of us have a lot of potential and a lot of ability that people overlook. That's why we're here in the first place.

"I feel like I can accomplish a lot of great things, and I feel like I have a lot more potential that just being a guy who's seen as a hard worker."

Tevis, a former walk-on who was put on scholarship in May, isn't Rudy. He can play.

Tevis is expected to start at safety on Saturday, when the UA opens the Rich Rodriguez era against Toledo at Arizona Stadium. He's just one of a handful of walk-ons or former walk-ons who are expected to contribute in a "bridge year" that could be rickety.

There are reasons to think, however, that Tevis is more than just a fill-in until something better arrives. Coaches love his smarts, both on and off the field - he was an all-conference academic pick a year ago - and his ability to hit. Mix in a competitive streak that he shares with his older brother Aaron, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, and you've got a player who, while small, has the tools to be successful. The 5-foot-10-inch, 197-pounder will benefit from the UA's 3-3-5 "odd stack" defense, which uses deception and pressure to keep offenses off-guard. Tevis is usually in the right place when he's on the field: His 12 tackles in 2011 were among the best on special teams.

Tevis' smarts and versatility are two of the things coaches noticed when they first watched him practice this spring. The former Canyon del Oro star competed with returning starter Adam Hall for playing time before Hall went down with a knee injury. Those who watched the position battle said Tevis actually outplayed Hall, even though he gave up 6 inches and 16 pounds to the former Parade All-American from Palo Verde.

"Every time something exciting happened on defense, he was usually in the middle of it," said Tony Gibson, the UA safeties coach.

Impressed by the spring performance, Rodriguez added Tevis - along with fellow safety Blake Brady - to the scholarship rolls in May.

As a full-ride player, Tevis can eat training table meals with his teammates - before, there were limitations - and counts toward the 85-man scholarship limit.

Tevis immediately called his brother, an undrafted free agent signee with the Saints, to share the good news. Given a few months' worth of perspective, Tevis calls the scholarship "a blessing" for both him and his parents.

And for his coach, it was a joy.

Identifying walk-ons and putting them on scholarship is the most gratifying part of Rodriguez's job, he said. He has placed more than 100 walk-ons on scholarship during his 20-year head coaching career.

"Every single one of those have been like Christmas for me," he said.

For Rodriguez, it's personal. He walked on.

Rodriguez enrolled at West Virginia in 1981 with just enough money to pay for one year of school. After noticing his performance on the scout team and in spring drills - Rodriguez, like Tevis, played safety - coach Don Nehlen awarded the young player a full ride.

Rodriguez has never forgotten the feeling, and the favor that was done for him.

Brady and Tevis may be just the start: In recent weeks, Rodriguez has talked optimistically about offering scholarships to defensive tackle Tevin Hood and a handful of others who have impressed in training camp.

Asked why he values walk-ons, Rodriguez recalled a conversation with the father of one of his former players.

"He was so proud of his son," Rodriguez said. "He said, 'When a high school player earns a scholarship, that means he's a really good high school player. If a college walk-on earns a scholarship, that proves he can play in college.' "

That's true for Tevis, too.

"He's truly earned it," Rodriguez said. "He's proved he can play at this level."

2012 College football preview

In today's Arizona Daily Star, get the lowdown on the new-look Wildcats, Pac-12 previews and more in our 56-page special section.