Through his first few years of high school, Jakorian Bennett knew he loved football. He just wasn’t sure if it loved him back.
Standing at just five-foot-five and stuck behind his teammates on the depth chart, Bennett struggled to see the field. He wondered if it was worth it to keep laboring through early mornings, grueling workouts and intense practices for little payoff.
“All my friends, they were starting, they were playing and stuff like that, but I wasn’t,” Bennett said.
When Bennett expressed his desire to stop playing football to his mother, she quickly called one of his coaches and explained the situation to him. The coach immediately contacted Bennett, convincing him to see it through.
Five years later, Bennett has become one of the best defensive backs in all of college football during his time at Maryland and has legitimate NFL aspirations. The adversity he faced along the way helped develop the perseverance that has allowed him to achieve his football dreams.
Bennett’s football career started in 2007 in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. At just eight years old, he played for the Eight Mile Giants, a youth football team that much of his family also suited up for. Playing linebacker, Bennett developed a love for the physical aspect of the game.
“I just loved the tackling. You know, people growing up as kids, everybody wants to be like running back and stuff like that, but I wanted to tackle people,” he said.
Even at a young age, though, Bennett’s size stood out to his teammates, earning him the nickname “Mighty Mouse.”
After rising through the youth ranks, Bennett enrolled at local McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, which was under the leadership of head coach Caleb Ross. When he showed up to play during his freshman year, Ross and his coaching staff became worried about Bennett’s size.
“When he came to McGill his freshman year, and I’m not kidding, he was five-four, five-five, maybe 110 or 115 pounds,” Ross recalls.
McGill-Toolen is a Catholic school, and because of that has to adhere to rules prohibiting freshmen from playing with the varsity team. Generally, though, Ross would have freshmen practice with the team to help them adjust to the higher level of competition.
“We can’t let this kid practice,” Ross remembers discussing with his staff when Bennett arrived. “He’s gonna get hurt. He may have to reconsider football altogether for his safety.”
The Yellowjackets were one of the best teams in Alabama, winning the 2015 7A state championship. In practices, Bennett would be squared up against players that possessed elite size, speed and technique.
Bennett convinced Ross to let him play, and the team rallied behind him because of his toughness and likable personality. Still, he figured that high school football was as far as his career would go.
“I didn’t really think I was going to play college football,” Bennett said. “Of course I had aspirations because I love the game, but at the same time, I knew since I wasn’t the biggest, I wasn’t the fastest and all that, I knew my chances of going to play football in college and the NFL were kind of slim. I didn’t start, didn’t play at all.”
After Bennett nearly quit following his junior year, though, everything began to change. He hit a growth spurt — something Ross anticipated because of Bennett’s large hands and feet — and 10 defensive starters departed, providing Bennett with an opportunity to make a name for himself.
Ross left for another job before Bennett’s senior season but harked back on a team workout prior to his departure that spring.
“I remember like a week or two before I left, we were doing [40-yard-dashes] and [Bennett] ran like a 4.52. We were blown away, like man, this kid is different,” he said. “This ain’t the same Jakorian from a couple years ago… I remember sitting him down and saying ‘Hey, it’s your time now.’”
He was right.
In his first varsity start, Bennett intercepted three passes, one of which he brought back 55 yards for a touchdown. That was just the beginning, as Bennett — playing both cornerback and wide receiver — put together a dominant senior season, totaling eight interceptions and adding two receiving touchdowns.
He was named to the Alabama All-Coastal Region Team as a part of the Class 7A state runner-up Yellowjackets squad.
Despite his success, a low ACT score prevented Bennett from being able to immediately make the jump to the Division I level. Instead, he was advised by a coach to attend junior college first with the potential to segue that into a football scholarship elsewhere.
“I didn’t really know what [junior college] was,” Bennett admitted. “I didn’t know anything about any school so I just picked the first school that offered me. So I just went to Hutchinson, Kansas.”
In his two years at Hutchinson Community College, Bennett picked up right where he left off in Mobile, registering 18 tackles for loss, three interceptions and two forced fumbles in 15 games. In 2019, he earned First Team All-Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference honors.
His performance earned him 27 Division I football offers, and faced with the biggest decision of his career to that point, Bennett expressed his excitement on a phone call with Ross, who tries to stay in contact with his former players on a regular basis.
“Ain’t this crazy, coach?” Bennett exclaimed. “This is awesome.”
Bennett narrowed his final three schools down to Oklahoma, Mississippi State and Maryland, and came to a final decision while on a yacht with Maryland head coach Mike Locksley and a handful of other recruits during his official visit.
“We were on the dance floor, just dancing and stuff like that. Then, I don’t know, something just clicked in my mind,” Bennett recalled. “You know that feeling you get, like you feel like something is right? I just went to [Locksley] and I just told him I wanted to commit.”
Bennett made the decision to play for Locksley at Maryland, and when he got to College Park, the difference between Hutchinson and Maryland immediately became apparent. Used to working out in cotton shirts, nylon shorts and shoes that were purchased with his own money, Bennett was gifted an extensive collection of Under Armour gear, including shirts, shorts, jackets and cleats.
But, the extent of the journey that Bennett had endured truly hit him in his first career game, a road contest at Northwestern in front of an empty stadium on a cold, fall night in Evanston, Illinois. Playing for the first time in a Maryland uniform, Bennett was brought to tears thinking about everything that had transpired in his career prior to taking the field.
“It was a surreal moment, just seeing all my hard work come to fruition and just seeing everything pay off,” Bennett said. “All the adversity that I had overcome — everything happened for a reason. Just kinda being on that stage, even though there weren’t any fans, it still felt like a big game to me.”
Bennett’s five-game junior season was played in front of empty stadiums because of COVID-19 restrictions, and while he appreciated the opportunity every step of the way, his real introduction to Maryland fans came in the 2021 season opener against West Virginia.
In front of a packed stadium, Maryland led by two against its rival with just over eight minutes remaining in the game. Inside the Terps’ 15-yard-line, West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege lofted a pass into the corner of the end zone that threatened to put the Mountaineers on top. Instead, Bennett leapt into the air, intercepting the pass and providing a boost that Maryland rode to victory.
That moment was not only crucial to Maryland’s season, but to Bennett as well, proving he could hold his own on the big stage.
“When I caught that interception, I was about to cry,” Bennett said. “That moment was definitely like, ‘Okay, I think I could do this.’ I really feel like I made the best decision just to keep going, just to fight through all the adversity. Everything happens for a reason. That moment was very special.”
Bennett had a fantastic 2021 season, leading all players in the Power Five and ranking sixth in the FBS with 16 pass breakups, the most by a Maryland player in nearly 20 years. He also added three interceptions — a team-high — and was an All-Big Ten honorable mention.
Additionally, the Terps finished with a winning record for the first time in seven years and won their first bowl game in 11.
After his fourth season of college football, Bennett was faced with a tough decision: move on and test the NFL waters or return for a fifth season, granted to all college athletes because of COVID-19.
For Bennett, the decision was easy.
“[I know] that we can really do something special here… I just wanted to come back and give us another chance to try to help [Locksley] show everybody what Maryland’s really about,” Bennett said.
Considered by many to be Maryland’s best returning player on defense, Bennett traveled with Locksley and teammates Rakim Jarrett and Taulia Tagovailoa to Indianapolis to represent the program at Big Ten Media Day. There, he showed his dedication with a custom suit that had “TBIA” etched into the collar, short for “the best is ahead” — Locksley’s program motto.
“I’m a suit guy, so it was just something that I had to have at media day,” Bennett said. “You have to look presentable so I just couldn’t go with a plain Jane suit. I had to switch it up a little bit.”
With the team represented on the front of his jersey and back of his suit, Bennett is all-in on Maryland football. Still, he hasn’t forgotten his Alabama roots.
Bennett is the only player on Maryland’s roster born and raised in Alabama, but he has developed a strong relationship with Tagovailoa from their shared experiences in the Yellowhammer State. When Taulia’s brother, Tua, enrolled at the University of Alabama in 2017, the Tagovailoa family relocated from their home of Ewa Beach, Hawaii, and Taulia enrolled at Thompson High School in Alabaster, Alabama.
McGill-Toolen and Thompson played each other in a spring game during the two players’ overlapping time in high school.
“I remember the first time I came here, I recognized his name just from high school,” Tagovailoa said. “I played against his team, McGill-Toolen. You know, just seeing our paths cross again over here, it was special. From that point on — the first time I [saw] him at Maryland — we’ve been like brothers.”
“Just kind of having that Alabama connection, he’s like a brother to me,” Bennett said of Tagovailoa. “We talk to each other after every game. When he’s down I’m there for him, when I’m down he’s there for me.”
Ross, who now holds the title of Director of Operations and High School Relations for Troy’s football program, still keeps in touch with Bennett, and praised him for not only the player he has become, but the person he has always been.
“He’ll have a shot [at the NFL]. If he has a good year and puts up good times, he’ll have a chance at the next level for sure,” he said. “He’s a good human being too, man. He’s always got a smile on his face.”
Bennett, who is still often moved to tears when he takes the field, offered words of advice for others that may be in a similar position to the one he found himself in during his high school years.
“Keep your confidence through whatever that happens. Everything is about confidence and believing in yourself,” he said.
“Growing up, I didn’t really have the confidence because I wasn’t the best player on the team or that red-carpet player that’s always been good since they were little,” Bennett continued. “That helped me now, having to keep working through whatever. All I know is working, just trying to get better. I’m never satisfied, I always want more.”
Persevering through thick and thin, Bennett is one of the best defensive players that Maryland has had in years. His experiences on the football field have shaped him into the person he is today — one that never takes anything for granted.