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Maryland cornerback Jakorian Bennett almost gave up football. Now he’s eyeing the NFL. – Boston Herald


Jakorian Bennett doesn’t know what his life would be like without football. Maybe he would’ve stuck with track, but his answer didn’t seem definitive. He spent a minute trying to envision a scenario where he wasn’t the starting cornerback at Maryland, and nothing came to mind.

Football has meant everything to Bennett, but life without it was almost a reality. He was an undersized defensive back who rarely touched the field through three years at McGill-Toolen High School in Mobile, Alabama. Bennett was on the verge of walking away from football when his former defensive backs coach, TJ McCord, told him “if you start quitting now, you are gonna quit everything for the rest of your life.”

A spark was ignited. Bennett starred as a senior and then went on to play at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, where he garnered 27 Division I offers before choosing Maryland.

Three years after arriving in College Park, he can sit back and say his long journey has paid off. Bennett, who leads all Power Five players in passes defended (27) since 2021, is a two-time All-Big Ten honorable mention and has a chance to go to the NFL, a goal he didn’t realize was possible until his last year of junior college.

“He’s such a hard worker,” redshirt senior wide receiver Jeshaun Jones said. “He’s getting what he deserves.”

When Bennett was invited to the Reese’s Senior Bowl, joining Terps left tackle Jaelyn Duncan and kicker Chad Ryland, he received even more validation that his pro dreams could come true. Not only will he showcase his skills in front of NFL scouts, coaches and key decision-makers in college football’s most prominent all-star event this week, but he’ll do it in his hometown of Mobile.

“It’s special to go back home and play where I grew up,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Bennett’s performance over the past two years warranted an invite. Last season, he led all Power Five players and ranked sixth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 16 pass breakups, the most by a Terp since Domonique Foxworth had 22 in 2003.

Bennett continued his strong play in 2022, totaling 11 pass breakups, 39 tackles and an interception. During the season opener against Buffalo, he broke up five passes, the most by a Maryland player since Tino Ellis in 2018.

“I just got to turn those breakups into [interceptions] then we will really be cooking,” said Bennett, who has four interceptions in three seasons.

While Bennett has blossomed into a potential NFL player, he wasn’t always self-confident. At 5 feet 5 and somewhere between 130 and 140 pounds, Bennett was a scrawny defensive back who barely touched the field on the varsity level. Even when he hit his growth spurt after his junior season, he still struggled. McCord decided to play a sophomore over him.

“If you are not playing [well], you will not be rewarded for your work,” the coach said.

Bennett started doubting himself and told his mom that he wanted to stop playing football. His mom told McCord, who had a heart-to-heart conversation with Bennett.

“Everything is a competition,” McCord said. “A lot of them feel like they were entitled to a spot because of classification, so I explained that to him. I think a light bulb went off after that conversation.”

Bennett earned a spot in the starting lineup ahead of his senior year and took advantage of the opportunity. In his first career start, he recorded three interceptions, including two pick-sixes, which he vividly remembers to this day.

“After that he [developed] a sense of confidence that he belonged, and he has been rolling ever since,” McCord said.

Even though Bennett drastically improved, he was still unranked and didn’t have a single star next to his name. He didn’t have boxes filled with Division I offers, and he didn’t have a red carpet rolled out in front of him during official visits to campus.

Bennett would end up traveling more than 14 hours from Mobile to Hutchinson Community College, where he spent two years with one goal in mind: play Division I football. After only playing five games in 2018, Bennett shined the following season, totaling 22 tackles, two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles.

He started receiving offers from Louisville, Oklahoma, Mississippi State and others. At long last, he was the sought-after prospect he desired to be in high school. But he still doubted himself, wondering if he really deserved all the attention.

“Maybe they were offering me because of this [other] team offering me. I never looked at it like I was a good player,” Bennett said. “I didn’t visualize myself getting all those offers because I was never the top guy.”

Bennett brought his work ethic and underdog mentality to Maryland, becoming a valuable leader on defense. He was an inspiring presence in the secondary who always played with a chip on his shoulder.

“I’ve seen him take major steps into becoming one of the loudest voices in the locker room that is not afraid to call out a teammate or himself when not performing at the standard that we create for our programs,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said.

Junior cornerback Tarheeb Still said Bennett has helped him remain calm during games, teaching him breathing techniques to get his mind right in. Redshirt senior defensive lineman Greg China-Rose said he plays with a ton of heart and never stops competing. Sophomore safety Dante Trader Jr. said Bennett showed him how to break down wide receivers.

“He’s a pro,” Trader said. “He’s a true leader and communicator.”

Bennett’s competitive nature was on display in Maryland’s loss to Ohio State in November. At times, Bennett went toe-to-toe with Marvin Harrison Jr., holding one of the nation’s best wideouts to one reception for 7 yards on four targets, according to Pro Football Focus. Bennett also held Buckeyes wide receiver Emeka Egbuka (six catches for 82 yards) to one reception for 8 yards on two targets.

“We played a lot of man [coverage] and got in their faces,” Bennett said. “We didn’t get the win, but as a secondary, we held our own.”

McCord, who owns a gym in Mobile and still trains Bennett whenever he comes home, said the senior cornerback’s journey is a good story of perseverance. He brings up Bennett’s name whenever he talks to younger players, comparing pictures of him when he was that skinny kid in high school to what he looks like now at Maryland.

Bennett doesn’t try to compare his journey to the elite high school recruits that went on to play in college. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” he would tell you.

Things didn’t always play out the way Bennett wanted, but at the end of the day, he is standing where he wants to be.

“Once you get an opportunity, [good things] can happen,” he said.

Senior Bowl

Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Alabama

Saturday, 1:30 p.m.

TV: NFL Network



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