Every season, football players all over the country try out for college programs, hoping to prolong their playing days by earning a spot at the depths of a roster.
The success rate isn’t great. It’s rare that many make the team and even more infrequent when these walk-ons prove good enough to earn a scholarship.
Nico Molino has done just that at two different schools. And that’s not even his biggest accomplishment.
The Cal Poly senior cornerback has four interceptions to sit atop the entire FCS and lead a Mustangs defense that has already created 10 turnovers this season. There are three others tied with Molino for the national lead, but he’s the only one who’s done it in four games. The others have played five.
“A lot of it’s just preparation,” Molino said. “It starts with coaches drawing up the right plays in practice and setting us up in the right positions and then at home just watching as much film as I can just figuring out what they like to do and what their tendencies are. The last thing is just coming out in practice and perfecting that technique and perfecting the craft.
“Last year to this year, I’ve gotten a lot better.”
Molino has more interceptions this season than he had in three previous years, two of which came with Cal Poly.
Fourth-quarter interceptions against Wyoming and UC Davis late in each game essentially sealed landmark victories for the Mustangs (4-0, 2-0 Big Sky Conference) and head coach Tim Walsh. The 24-22 win over the Cowboys was Walsh’s first over an FBS team in four seasons. The 28-20 victory over the Aggies was Walsh’s first in the annual rivalry game.
Molino had two interceptions in Saturday’s 35-17 victory at North Dakota with fans back home lamenting the Grand Forks webcast announcers calling him Nick all the while.
“Right now, Nico is playing within the scheme of what we want him to do,” Walsh said, “and if you do what you’re supposed to do and you do it right, eventually plays are going to come to you, and when you get the opportunity to make them, make them.
“It’s not about the one spectacular play. It’s about the consistency of play, and right now, his consistency is playing at a high level. And if he stays there, good things will happen for him, and good things will probably happen for us.”
Coming out of Granite Bay High in 2008, the 5-foot-10 cornerback did not have a scholarship offer. But FCS programs Northern Arizona and Portland State asked him to walk on, meaning he had to pay his own way through the university initially with a chance to earn some scholarship money.
Sharing a close friendship with Folsom quarterback Cary Grossart, now the Lumberjacks’ senior starter, Molino chose Northern Arizona.
After playing in all 11 games and racking up eight tackles as a true freshman, Molino was awarded a scholarship after just one semester. But for the California native, the freshman year in Flagstaff was filled with homecoming cravings.
“They were super welcoming, and I felt like I really had an opportunity there,” Molino said. “It just wasn’t the right fit for me. Football was cool. Just as far as the place and location, it just wasn’t the right fit.”
He had the chance to transfer to San Luis Obispo, but he’d be starting from the ground up at Cal Poly, walking on once again until he could prove his worth.
“We thought he was a good enough player to possibly earn,” a scholarship, Walsh said, “but you’ve got to earn it not just by being the fourth or fifth corner, but by being the second or third corner.”
After redshirting and sitting out in 2009 in accordance with NCAA transfer rules, Molino again had a solid debut for a collegiate program, playing in all 11 of the Mustangs’ games in 2010 and starting seven.
His first of two interceptions that year came in a runaway victory at Old Dominion, and the second was the type of game-changer he’s had this season. His third-quarter interception with the score knotted at 17 against South Dakota was the pivotal play in a 38-24 Mustangs victory.
Even though he had a leg injury that limited him to seven games and one start in 2011, Walsh said he had enough respect for what Molino had accomplished and put him on scholarship.
“It was more what I did the previous year and what I was going to do in the future,” Molino said. “He wasn’t too sure about my injury, but he knew I was going to fight back and he had faith in me and I appreciate that.”