Gavin Bennett and Jalen Tatah’s diverging reactions to the big news they got before the University of South Carolina’s rainy win over Akron in early December tell you everything about the bittersweet nature of the preferred walk-on offer.
Both are seniors in high school -- Tatah at Lancaster and Bennett at South Pointe -- and both are offensive linemen.
Gamecocks offensive line coach Eric Wolford had quietly tracked the pair during the fall after first seeing them at South Carolina’s offensive line camp last summer. Tatah and Bennett were invited to the Gamecocks’ hastily scheduled December game against Akron, meant to replace an earlier game against Marshall that was canceled because of Hurricane Florence.
Each was called into Wolford’s office individually and made aware that the University of South Carolina was offering them a preferred walk-on spot with the Gamecocks football team.
Bennett: “I didn’t really have any expectations, just thought he wanted to introduce himself and all that. Then he offered me and it almost brought me to tears. It was the dream of a lifetime.”
Tatah: “To be honest, disappointed really. But I wasn’t surprised.”
The PWO offer meant both would have a spot on the team, but no scholarship. They would have to pay their own way initially, but could possibly earn a scholarship in the future. Wolford cited Gamecocks redshirt sophomore Chandler Farrell as a former PWO lineman that played in five games this season and earned a scholarship last August.
South Carolina has around 105 players on its roster each season, and 85 of those are on scholarship. That leaves about 20 spots for walk-ons, some of whom are PWOs. Top-tier college football programs need depth at every position and PWOs help provide that.
“We want to find people that we feel like some day can develop and play for us,” said Wolford. “There is a ton of different circumstances of why a kid is where he’s at in high school. Is he a late-bloomer? Is he in a situation where maybe he didn’t play in a great program? There is a ton of different things.
“But guys that we invite to be a part of our program, we feel like they should be able, in a couple of years, to contribute on special teams or the offensive line position, and sometimes, with some injuries, those guys can earn a scholarship and play for us.”
Both Tatah and Bennett were already pondering other options when the Gamecocks entered the picture in December.
Bennett, who started some games at South Pointe as a junior, then took over the left tackle spot as a senior, had a scholarship offer from Limestone, and was accepted into the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, where he could also play football.
Tatah, who started several years for the Bruins and was a North-South all-star selection, had offers from nearly every team in the South Atlantic Conference (Newberry, Tusculum, Lenoir-Rhyne, Wingate), as well as Mercer, Presbyterian and South Carolina. Only the last two weren’t full scholarships (PC is no longer offering full scholarships for athletics).
For Bennett, South Carolina’s offer was intriguing, to say the least. He and his parents attended numerous Gamecocks home games in recent years, enjoying the tailgating scene and rowdy crowds at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play D-I football,” Bennett said.
Academics figured heavily in Bennett’s decision, too. He has a GPA well over 4.0 and wants to be an engineer, like his dad. South Carolina’s engineering school announced a partnership with Boeing in the last year that caught Bennett’s attention and enabled him to see a future beyond whatever may happen on the football field. The Coast Guard Academy offer also had potential long-term benefits too.
Crucially, Bennett’s mother, Stephanie, is a disabled Army veteran and the financial aid Bennett will receive thanks to his mom’s military service will help offset some of his college tuition costs.
But finances were squarely on Tatah’s mind when pondering the Gamecocks’ offer, along with all the others he had received. He appreciated the PWO offer but said the reason he was initially disappointed was he performed well at the Gamecocks’ offensive line camp and thought he deserved a scholarship offer.
Tatah said that Wolford liked his chances of making an impact at South Carolina, eventually.
“All the coaches there really thought I had a chance of being on scholarship within two years,” said Tatah. “It would have been practice team, then whatever happens, happens.”
No one told Tatah to think about the financial implications of his college decision. He just didn’t want his family to have to pay for college. Any of it.
“It was probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make,” he said.
Division II Wingate eventually moved to the front of the line. Tatah liked the school’s academic offerings. He’s got a 4.1 GPA and wants to become a physician’s assistant.
The Bulldogs annually contend for the SAC title, and the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Tatah says there is a vacancy in the starting lineup at right tackle that he hopes to compete for as a freshman.
Tatah and Bennett spoke with each other after receiving their PWO offers. And both got what they wanted with their final decision.
Bennett accepted South Carolina’s PWO offer. He’s got an uphill fight to make an impact on the Gamecocks’ program. But he’s ready to try.
“I have a lot to prove,” said Bennett, who is 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. “I just want to get in there, get working and I’ll see where I stand.”
Tatah ultimately decided to go to Wingate on a full scholarship. He’s got his eye on immediate playing time for a solid Division II program that averaged eight wins per season in the last four years. And he’ll graduate with no college debt.
Tatah was happy with his choice. But would it have been easier if South Carolina had never extended its PWO offer to him?
“That’s how my mom felt,” he said with a chuckle.