How Stetson Bennett went from walk-on to College Football Playoff National Championship

  • Senior college football writer
  • Author of seven books on college football
  • Graduate of the University of Georgia

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in October 2020. It has been updated.

BLACKSHEAR, Ga. — When Stetson Bennett III moved his family from suburban Atlanta to southeast Georgia in the summer of 2004, he took his eldest son and namesake to see the small town’s high school football stadium while they waited for moving trucks to arrive.

“Daddy, it’s a little small,” Stetson Bennett IV said.

“Yeah, but they’ll have to make it bigger when you get here,” his father told him.

Stetson Bennett IV was in the first grade.

While the stage might have seemed small in Brantley County back then, Bennett IV couldn’t ask for a bigger one on Monday night. Georgia’s unlikely starting quarterback will be looking to end more than 40 years of heartache when his No. 3 Bulldogs square off against No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T for the national title (Monday, 8 p.m., ESPN and ESPN App).

“Do I know that means a lot to a lot of people?” Bennett said Monday. “Yes. Am I trying to play some kind of savior by winning a national championship for millions of people? No. I don’t think that’s my job.”

Bennett’s circuitous route from lightly recruited high school prospect to preferred walk-on to junior college and then back to Georgia occurred because most college coaches believed he was too small to succeed at the FBS level.

Despite leading Pierce County High School to three consecutive state playoff appearances and throwing for 3,724 yards, running for 500 more and scoring 40 total touchdowns as a senior, his only FBS scholarship offer came from Middle Tennessee State. FCS programs such as Mercer, Samford, Harvard and Princeton wanted him, but FBS coaches thought he was too short and too light (he was 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds at the time).

“When you grow up in a little small town in Georgia, it’s hard to be seen,” his father said. “Even when you are, it’s easy to be discounted.”

Bennett III did everything in his control to make sure his son had a chance at following his dream to play big-time college football. While his new pharmacy was being built in Nahunta, Georgia, which is about 80 miles northwest of Jacksonville, Florida, he leveled an adjoining lot for a football field.

The field was only 80 yards long; one of the end zones would have been in the middle of Highway 82 if it were the full 100 yards. Orange construction fences prevented footballs (and players) from bounding into traffic.

Bennett III purchased two 53-foot shipping containers, cut off one side of each, and had them welded together. The “Hideout” sat behind his pharmacy, and it’s where Bennett IV and his Brantley Bandits teammates gathered nearly every day.

“I walked the halls of the elementary school recruiting kids to play,” his father said. “It didn’t matter if he was 30 pounds or 80, I told him he looked like he was going to be a football player.”

After school, the players gathered at the Hideout for snacks of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk, a 15-minute devotional, tutoring and homework, and then a workout and practice. There were shelves for the players to hang their equipment, along with two referee shirts and a pair of whistles.

Bennett III and other coaches lined the field with 10-yard lines and hashmarks. One thing missing: a chain gang. If a kickoff was returned to the 32-yard line, the possession started at the 30-yard line. If the next pass went 14 yards, it was backed up to the 40. The local rules often left opponents scratching their heads.

During game week, Bennett III hung a banner promoting the game from his pharmacy, and it wasn’t unusual for 100 people or so to show up.

During Bennett IV’s seventh-grade season in 2010, the Brantley Bandits played a 34-game schedule, including three games in one day. They finished 32-2.

“Gosh, that would be crazy to do now,” Bennett IV said. “We traveled all over the place.”

As an eighth-grader, Bennett IV sat in the Pierce County High School team’s quarterback meetings and broke down film with head coach Sean Pender. That same season, after he threw for 455 yards against a rival school’s JV team, the varsity coach told his dad, “That boy is for real. I’ve never seen a performance like that. He can throw it in a mailbox.”

The legend of the “Mailman” was born. A year or two later, a Pierce County High teammate, whose father was mayor of a nearby town, gave Bennett IV a U.S. Postal Service hat.

“We started calling him the Mailman,” said Kole Kicklighter, one of his teammates in high school. “He liked it and everybody else liked it, so it stuck.”

Bennett IV wore the blue Postal Service hat in an attempt to stand out at 7-on-7 tournaments and college camps.

Still, the Power 5 scholarship offer he desperately wanted never came.

“Sometimes I just didn’t really understand it because I was like, ‘Well, I’m pretty sure I’m better than these guys, and I think I’m smarter than them and faster than them,'” Bennett said. “I really didn’t know what was going on. I guess you just get used to it and then just say, ‘Well, you’ve just got to show them sometimes.'”

Pender, who played for Hal Mumme at Valdosta State, said height was the only reason his quarterback wasn’t more heavily recruited.

“He was always smaller, maybe 5 feet, 9 inches as a sophomore,” Pender said. “He had a live arm and was fast, witty and had a gunslinger’s mentality. He wouldn’t dwell on mistakes and moved on. He just has that knack. You can tell some kids have that ‘it’ factor. He has it.”

Bennett’s father and his mother, Denise, both attended Georgia, and he grew up attending Bulldogs games. UGA’s coaches didn’t seem interested, either.

That changed when Georgia signee Richard LeCounte told Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart about the fleet-footed quarterback. LeCounte had played against Bennett and Stanford commitment Davis Mills (Greater Atlanta Christian), who was rated the country’s top quarterback by at least two recruiting services in 2016.

“Davis Mills might be the best quarterback in the country,” LeCounte told Smart, according to Stetson Bennett III, “but he’s only second best in Class AAA. I’ve played against both, and Stetson Bennett is better.”

Bennett joined the Bulldogs as a preferred walk-on and ran the scout-team offense while redshirting in 2017. He drew praise from Georgia’s defense after mimicking Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield in preparation for playing Oklahoma in a CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl.

“Stetson Bennett is a beast, man,” then-defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said at the time. “He puts a lot of pressure on our defense because he is extremely quick, he’s fast and he can throw. He can throw in the pocket and he can throw on the run, and he’s very, very competitive.”

Then-Bulldogs linebacker Lorenzo Carter, now with the New York Giants, said Bennett made him and current Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith “look silly” in Rose Bowl practices.

“He’s a quick guy,” Carter said. “He can outrun a lot of people. He’s made Roquan look silly; he’s made me look silly. He’s made a lot of people look silly.”

Yet, when Georgia signed highly regarded freshman Justin Fields to compete with returning starter Jake Fromm the next season, Bennett could see the writing on the wall. He transferred to Jones College in Ellisville, Mississippi, where he threw for 1,840 yards with 16 touchdowns in 2018.

Bennett was set to sign with Louisiana when Pender called him, shortly after Fields announced he was transferring to Ohio State.

“Would you go back to Georgia if they’ll have you?” Pender asked him.

“Yes,” Bennett said. “But it has to be different this time.”

Pender had become friendly with then-Bulldogs offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who was recruiting Warren McClendon from Brunswick High School on the Georgia coast, where Pender is now coaching. Pender helped reunite Bennett with the Bulldogs.

“I think that’s what it was — just to have a chance this time to compete for the starting job,” Bennett said.

In 2019, Bennett played in five games behind Fromm, attempting 27 passes with two touchdowns. When Fromm left early for the NFL draft, the Bulldogs brought in two transfers — Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman and USC’s JT Daniels — to compete to replace him.

Bennett seemed like the odd man out once again. In fact, a couple of weeks before the start of preseason camp in August 2020, new offensive coordinator Todd Monken told him as much.

“It was frustrating, but I just kept my head down and kept working and trying to prove them wrong,” Bennett said. “I wanted to make sure whenever my number was called, I would be ready to go.”

In early September 2020, Newman announced that he was opting out of the season because of concerns about the coronavirus. Daniels, who had missed all but one game at USC in 2019 because of a knee injury, still hadn’t been medically cleared to play. Bennett and redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis were left to compete for the starting job.

The Bulldogs went with Mathis in the opener at Arkansas, but he looked overwhelmed while completing 8 of 17 passes for 55 yards with one interception. Bennett came off the bench and threw for 211 yards and two touchdowns on 20-for-29 passing, leading Georgia to a 37-10 win.

“Stetson is confident. He’s confident in himself, and he’s a competitor,” offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer said at the time. “Stets goes out there and gives it everything he’s got every day. He doesn’t like to lose.”

This season, Bennett was passed over again for a healthy Daniels, who started the opener against Clemson. But Daniels suffered an oblique injury against the Tigers, and Bennett started the next week against UAB. Even after he tied a school record with five touchdowns in the first half in a 56-7 rout of the Blazers, Daniels — a former five-star recruit — was back in the starting lineup the next week against South Carolina.

“I can’t speak to the five-stars in the room. I wasn’t one,” Bennett said. “Those guys are going to get every opportunity to fail before a walk-on gets an opportunity to succeed. I’ll put it that way. It’s just business. If you recruit all these five-stars and then you play walk-ons over every single one of them, who is to say the next five-star is not going to see that and not come here? Usually five-stars are better than walk-ons. That’s typically how it goes.”

But when Daniels injured a lat muscle in the first half against Vanderbilt on Sept. 25, Bennett took over once again and never gave the job back, no matter how much some Georgia fans complained. Even Monken admits he probably underestimated what Bennett could do.

“I think Stetson at times — I’m talking about me, have probably undervalued his skill set,” Monken said. “We’ve tried to elevate guys that have talent on our roster, and we do that at every position, and some guys just combat that and fight and scratch and continue to play well and try to prove you wrong, and that’s what Stetson Bennett did.

Since taking over, Bennett has done exactly what Smart has wanted. Behind a dominant defense, he has thrown for 2,638 yards, 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. Of course, he still hears the skeptics. He’s a game manager. He can’t match five-star recruit, current Heisman winner and future top NFL draft pick Bryce Young point for point.

When Georgia faced Bama in the SEC title game, the Tide jumped out to a second-half lead and Bennett struggled. It led to questions about whether Smart should go to Daniels for the playoff. Bennett responded by throwing for 313 yards and three touchdowns against Michigan in the Capital One Orange Bowl, setting up a rematch with Alabama. Of course, that was in a 34-11 rout, where the Wolverines just couldn’t compete with the Bulldogs’ defense. Can Bennett do that against Nick Saban and Will Anderson?

“There was no personal doubt,” Bennett said of his self-belief after the SEC title game. “I knew what I had to do. Felt like I needed to play that well to beat a team like Michigan because of who they are and how talented they are. But it wasn’t to prove anything to me that I could play football in this league.”

On Monday night, in a game that will define the legacies of so many Bulldogs, Bennett will face his most difficult test on the biggest stage yet.

It will be a long way from that tiny football stadium in southeast Georgia.

“And hopefully after this season, after this game, hopefully we play well enough to beat a great Bama team,” Bennett said. “And then hopefully every single one of us can sit down and talk about, ‘Wow, did you see how bright those lights were? That was pretty awesome.'”

Source: Read Full Article