Zack Bennett drew recruiters from some of the nation’s top college football programs to Rocky Mountain High two years ago, earning offers from Nebraska and Iowa. But then they got a look at his transcript.
With a 1.8 GPA, he didn’t qualify for a Division I scholarship. So he instead spent the past two years at Arizona Western College, where he hit the books and anchored the offensive line for a pair of national junior college runner-up teams.
The route paid off as Bennett boosted his GPA to 3.1, allowing him to sign a full-ride scholarship with Florida Atlantic on Wednesday as part of National Signing Day.
“I was humbled by the experience, for sure,” the 6-foot-3, 295-pound center said. “I think I’m a different person because of it, and I think it was a good thing for me to go through.
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“If I had to do it all over again, I would go to (junior college) even if I had the grades.”
Bennett heads to Florida Atlantic with a chance for immediate playing time. The reigning Conference USA champion graduated its starting center and both of its starting guards after an 11-1 season.
Bennett will have three years to use his remaining two seasons of eligibility.
“He’s a smart, savvy football player that gets after it,” Arizona Western coach Tom Minnick told the Sun-Sentinel. “He’s not afraid to take on the biggest player. He’s got that nasty to him. You always want that nastiness.”
Bennett originally verbally committed to Idaho State in June, telling the Statesman that he’d remain committed to his home state Bengals “unless I get a dream offer.”
But he reopened his recruitment after Idaho State fired Dorian Keller as its offensive line coach in December. Keller will be reassigned within Idaho State until he finds another job or his contract expires in June, Idaho State Athletic Director Jeff Tingey told the Idaho State Journal.
Bennett said he chose Florida Atlantic over offers from Kansas and UTEP, citing the up-and-coming program that Lane Kiffin built in a single season. After three straight 3-9 seasons, Kiffin led the Owls to their first 11-win season at the FBS level, including a 50-3 win over Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl.
Florida Atlantic heads into 2018 on a 10-game winning streak, the second longest in FBS behind Central Florida (13). USA Today ranked the Owls No. 21 in its way-too-early Top 25 for 2018. Boise State is the only other Group of Five team, at No. 14.
“There’s a lot of good things going on with their program,” Bennett said. “They have a shot to be in the national spotlight, and I think I have a good opportunity to play there right away.”
Kiffin has drawn a national spotlight to Florida Atlantic with not only wins, but also his social media antics, using his Twitter account to troll his former employers at Alabama and Tennessee. Bennett said he’s enjoyed Kiffin’s online presence, but he’s more drawn to the success on the field and to Kiffin’s NFL ties.
“It’s funny. I think all his recruits get a little bit of a kick out of it,” Bennett said. “But at the same time, he’s more of a business guy. When we went on our visit, you could tell how much he is about business and how successful he wants that program to be.”
Former Rocky Mountain football coach Scott Criner said he’s talked with Bennett more than any of his former players over the past two years. Criner grew emotional describing how far Bennett has come from his freshman season at Rocky Mountain to nearing a college degree. Bennett said he’ll finish his associate’s degree at Arizona Western before enrolling at Florida Atlantic.
“I’ve always believed you don’t throw kids away,” Criner said. “If I can do something to help them, I’ll help them. This kid made me see it is possible.
“It might be baby steps, but he’s inching closer to that final goal. I hope he understands that that’s getting that degree — getting that degree and becoming a contributing guy to society.”
Bennett knows the junior college route comes with its own stigma. He said nearly everyone on his team enrolled at Arizona Western because of troubles in the classroom or off the field.
But he said he’d recommend going to a junior college to anyone having academic difficulty or who believes recruiters overlooked them in high school.
“If you do have bad grades, juco is the way to go because they can give you another opportunity,” Bennett said. “You get a clean slate. … It gave me a whole new aspect on life, having a second chance.”
Idaho’s high school football class of 2018
Twenty Idaho high school seniors or recent graduates have signed a Division I football scholarship as part of the 2018 recruiting class, including those who signed during the early period in December.
Rocky Mtn. (2016)
Rocky Mtn. (2014)