New Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace will not be intimidated by the odds of making the NFL as an undrafted rookie.
On opening day last season, 29 percent of the players in the NFL were undrafted. Wallace arguably faced longer odds in going from walk-on to starter at the University of Alabama.
Most major-college walk-ons are invited to join or try out for the program.
Wallace was so off the radar when he arrived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., that he spent his first semester at Alabama playing intramural flag football.
"I was a quarterback, and we got second place," Wallace told The News at the Senior Bowl.
At the urging of his father, Wallace joined a mass tryout for walk-on spots on the Crimson Tide team in January of his freshman year.
"There were about 60 of us," Wallace said. "The first thing we did was run four laps around the field. I remember that. I won those four laps. That cut like half the people down. After that there was a bunch of drills. After that, they called the names. You're on the team, but you can always get cut up until summertime."
Wallace spent two years as a nonscholarship walk-on, then earned a scholarship for his junior season. He was a key reserve and special teamer in 2016. Then he started in 2017 and earned second-team All-Southeastern Conference. He was nicknamed "The Technician" by his 'Bama secondary mates.
The Bills made Wallace one of about a dozen undrafted rookie signings last week. Those players take the field this weekend with the Bills' draft choices and other rookies who received tryout invitations when the Bills hold a rookie minicamp in Orchard Park.
Wallace joins a Bills secondary that has unproven depth at cornerback behind starters Tre'Davious White and Vontae Davis. Free-agent signee Phillip Gaines and fourth-round draft choice Taron Johnson are penciled in as the contenders for the No. 3 corner position.
Wallace had no Division I scholarship offers coming out of high school in Tucson largely because he was an undersized, 155-pounder his senior season. His father, Walt, grew up in Tuscaloosa and passed on a passion for 'Bama football to his son.
Levi decided to follow his heart to Tuscaloosa. But shortly before he left for college, Walt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.
"I said I wanted to be here for my mom, and I didn't want to go off and play," Levi said. "But he wanted me to get an education. So I decided to go to Alabama, but I wasn't going to try out. There's a lot of responsibilities if you're playing football. You can't just fly off. In case of an emergency, I wanted to be able to drop everything and be able to go."
Walt pushed Levi to walk on after the first semester but never got to see his son play college football. On the eve of Levi's first spring game, in April 2014, Walt died at age 58.
Levi persevered. Discipline was ingrained in him by his father, a 21-year Air Force veteran, and Levi embraced the strict culture at Alabama.
"I take coaching well, any coaching," Wallace said. "Being at Alabama makes you grow up and mature. No matter what coaching comes your way, you've got to take it. That's just part of growing up and being a man. At Alabama you have to grow up fast. There's no cutting corners. If you miss a study session or a meeting, you shouldn't be there. It's more businesslike than anything. We have a job to do."
After two seasons as a scout-team practice player, he became one of three walk-ons in August 2016 to be put on scholarship by coach Nick Saban.
Levi became a first-teamer in the first half of the 2017 season-opener against Florida State after starter Trevon Diggs struggled early in the game. Wallace had a pass breakup and an interception and never looked back. He started the next 13 games on 'Bama's road to the national championship. He did not allow one TD pass and led the SEC in passes defended with 18. Pro Football Focus called him one of 10 undrafted rookies who will make an impact in 2018.
Wallace went undrafted because of size and speed. He's reasonably tall, at 6 feet, but he's on the thin side, at 179 pounds. His 40-time, 4.63 seconds, is on the low end for an NFL cornerback.
So Wallace will have to rely on his superb technique and toughness, which Alabama demands of its cornerbacks.
Wallace's determination should not be underestimated, either. Just two days after 'Bama beat Georgia for the national championship, Wallace was in Phoenix at the EXOS training academy preparing himself for the NFL.
"I celebrated on the field with my teammates, and I was excited about that," he said. "But the next day came, and I knew I had to get ready for the Senior Bowl in a couple weeks. It's all business. That's how we train at Alabama. We're always getting ready for the next game."
Wallace knows it's the kind of attitude his father would admire.
"Me and my mom had a moment at the end of the national championship game," he said. "I saw her in the stands and we both pointed up. It's all about him. I dedicated the season to him. I'm just glad I know he's watching me and I know he's proud of me."
Story topics: Levi Wallace