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From Preferred Walk-on to Starter: A Conversation with Grant Dawson

Tracking Dawson’s journey from a preferred walk-on as a freshman to team captain as a senior

I’ve known Wake Forest linebacker Grant Dawson for probably almost eight years now, going back to our freshman year together at Ronald Reagan High School in Pfafftown. When I became a writer for BloggerSoDear, one of the first things I asked Riley was if I could interview my longtime friend who is now a redshirt-senior captain for the Wake Forest football team.

Grant Dawson is the third Wake Forest player in recent memory who has gone from a walk-on to team captain, following fullback Jordan Garside and linebacker Hunter Williams.

Like many other athletes, Dawson was a star in high school, and was probably the best and most versatile player on a talented Reagan team. His perseverance has allowed him to succeed and achieve his goals where many before him have failed, but his journey from a preferred walk-on his freshman year to team captain as a redshirt-senior hasn’t always been an easy one.

Going back to our senior year at Reagan in 2012, Dawson was the leader of a team that was poised to make its first playoff run in school history (Reagan was founded in 2005).

For Dawson, he tried to do everything that Coach Josh McGee of Reagan asked of him, whether that was being a dominant linebacker, making plays on special teams or coming in at fullback with the game on the line.

I remember the game against Mount Tabor our senior year when Reagan had the ball on fourth and goal on the one yard line with only a few seconds to go. Coach McGee decided to put Dawson in as the running back on the play and let him use his strength and big body to push his way into the endzone for the game-winning touchdown. It was Reagan’s first win ever over rival Tabor, and Dawson was the hero for all of Raider Nation that night.

Given all of Dawson’s accolades, I would have thought that he had many offers from smaller Division One schools. According to Dawson, however, the only scholarship offers he had were from Division Two schools like Lenoir-Rhyne and Wingate.

While it is great to have a guaranteed scholarship to play somewhere, Dawson had bigger plans in mind. He was offered a preferred walk-on spot by Coach Jim Grobe of Wake Forest, and immediately took that offer.

“Well to be honest I had a lot of support at home and to play ACC football was always a dream of mine and having that support system was key.” Dawson said.

I recall how Dawson and I were excited every time we would see each other in the hallways of Reagan. We would grin at each other and say “GO DEACS!” probably to the chagrin of Carolina, Duke, and State fans around us.

It wasn’t all smiles and excitement though, being a preferred walk-on meant that Dawson’s family would have to pay full tuition for his freshman year, and for anyone who has been a Wake student we know how much of a sacrifice this is. His family was supportive of his decision and his faith gave him the confidence to know he had made the right decision.

In my interview after the spring game, I brought up Dawson’s time at Reagan and how he played many different positions. I asked how he decided to play linebacker, and if that is the position that Coach Grobe and his staff recruited him to play.

“It was the position I was best at hands down-that was a great moment (the game at Tabor our senior year) you mentioned by the way-linebacker was more my natural position given my physical attributes,” said Dawson.

“I’ve always felt like I’ve had a pretty decent instinct for playing linebacker, so that’s what I came to college to play and I’ve stuck with it and I’ve done ok with it.”

Hailing from Winston-Salem, Dawson has always had plenty of family and friends to rely on for support, both at games and outside of football.

“It’s a really awesome feeling. I had a little doubt about staying close to home at the very, very beginning, but it’s always been a dream of mine to come here and play football,” Dawson said.

“I grew up going to Wake games, like I know you did, and having my family here and my friends here for scrimmages like this and spring games and then the real games in the fall is just awesome-it really is. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Dawson redshirted his freshman year under Coach Grobe. Following his true freshman season, Coach Grobe was not retained and Dave Clawson was brought in as the new head coach.

For a walk-on this is a tough situation because they aren’t guaranteed a spot on the team under the new coach. He was given a chance and his persistence and hard work ethic paid off, as he was awarded a scholarship at the end of spring practice by Clawson and his staff.

With a coaching change comes a defensive coordinator change and a position coach change. Since the departure of Mike Elko to Notre Dame after the bowl win over Temple, and the hiring of Jay Sawvel, Dawson has now played under three different defensive coordinators and linebacker coaches.

He says he has taken bits and pieces of what he has learned from each coach and tried to apply it to his game.

“You’re right-every coach is a little bit different and if anything it’s probably a good thing because I’ve gotten taught many different ways, and now I can incorporate those ways to see what works best for me, and of course defensive coordinator wise I’m playing his defense,” Dawson said.

“I’ve had three position coaches and they’ve all taught me a little something else-you know every one is a little different so-it’s kind of what techniques or what moves work the best for you and having more input on that I think has been a big benefit for me.”

Speaking of learning a lot from others, Dawson has had the opportunity to play behind and practice against a current NFL linebacker in Brandon Chubb and a future NFL linebacker in Marquel Lee.

I asked what he had learned from playing behind those two guys.

“Aw man I mean those guys-they couldn’t have been better role models and better to learn from,” Dawson replied.

“Both of them, like you said, were great players, and seeing how they approached practice every day, and seeing how they approached the film room, and they perfected their game during their off-time really just kind of set the tone and taught me how I should go about it. You know I’m always trying to be a hard worker-I always tried to match their hard work and I think it’s really helped me develop into a better football player.”

Chubb also served as role model for Dawson off the field, and Dawson says Chubb has been the most influential person in his time at Wake.

“Player-wise I would definitely say Brandon Chubb has been the biggest influence on me. When he was here he was a close friend of mine and like I said he was a great, great role model as far as a football player and as a person off the field. He got me into community service here in Winston, and like I said any off-time he had he was getting in work football-wise and always inviting me along, so I appreciate that big time from him.”

Dawson progressed from a redshirt preferred walk-on his true freshman season to earning a scholarship and playing a large role on special teams his redshirt freshman season.

His redshirt sophomore season he began to see some time as a backup Mike and Buck linebacker behind Chubb and Lee. Last season he served in the same role, but was the primary backup, and started a game when Lee went down with an injury. This year he will serve as the starting Mike linebacker.

Before the spring game on Saturday, Dawson was voted by his teammates as one of six team captains for his redshirt senior season. Coach Dave Clawson was asked postgame about Dawson’s new role. Thanks to Les Johns for the content-give him a follow on Twitter @Les_Johns.

On Grant Dawson’s importance to the program

Clawson: “Unbelievable. I’ve said it a lot of times, Grant is just one of those do-right guys. He has worked himself into being a good football player. He’s a local guy from Reagan High School who came here as a walk-on, earns a scholarship, then becomes a captain — very similar to Hunter Williams, and what he did. I’m really proud of him. He has to finish the deal, by performing on the field next year. All those things are nice, but you have to go out there and perform and do it at a high level.”

In addition to Clawson’s comments, Dawson was asked postgame about his role as a leader going forward.

Everyone is expecting big things from Dawson this coming season, and knowing him as I do, I am sure that he will deliver on them and live up to all of the expectations being placed on him. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

When asked what’s next for him after Wake, Dawson laughed and replied,

“Uh not quite sure. I’m not completely positive yet. I wish I could give you a definite answer, but right now I’m just looking forward to this fall and looking to try to win an ACC championship and we’ll see what happens after that.”

That’s just Dawson-always focused on the task at hand.

I am honored to call Grant Dawson my friend and thankful to him for giving me the opportunity to do my first ever interview. I’m expecting big things from him in the fall, and can’t wait to see him take the field and let his leadership show. I know all of Raider Nation and Tie-Dye Nation will be watching with me.