COLUMBIA — The high school was a new one, and it showed on the football field. Ponte Vedra had been broken off from Nease, the north Florida power that produced Tim Tebow, and head coach Mike Loyd’s program won five games over its first two seasons.
Then a kid named Perry Orth became his quarterback.
“Perry immediately took us to 7-4. That easily could have been 9-2, but the kids didn’t know how to win, and we didn’t have a whole lot of talent,” Loyd said. “Perry immediately made us better, made the kids believe they could win. The next year, we won 11 games in a row and came one game from playing for a state championship. Perry Orth did that.”
Orth will try to engineer another turnaround Saturday when he makes his first start for a South Carolina team which is a heavy underdog at No. 7 Georgia. But Orth has already proven adept at beating the odds — after all, he did just that by eschewing offers from numerous small colleges out of high school, preferring to walk on and fight his way up the depth chart at USC.
“Two and a half years ago, I was the sixth-string quarterback as a walk-on here,” he said. “It’s been quite a ride.”
It began at Ponte Vedra, where Orth set career marks in passing yards and touchdown passes.
“Perry wore me out every day” demanding to know more about coverages, Loyd said, so the quarterback began studying with the team’s defensive coordinator. “He’s a student of the game,” Loyd added. “He wants to be great.”
But there was one thing Orth didn’t have — size. At just over 6 feet tall, he didn’t fit the physical mold major-college coaches were looking for. Loyd, who played quarterback in the NFL and now coaches at a high school in Oklahoma, said Orth received interest from 30 to 40 college programs, all of them either Football Championship Subdivision or Division II.
“Perry was overlooked because of his size,” Loyd said. “I talked to several coaches and said, ‘When you look at Russell Wilson, you look at Drew Brees, you look at Chase Daniel, I think we’re beyond that.’ If the kid can play, the kid can play. The kid from Wake Forest (John Wolford), he and Perry were two of the better kids I saw in almost seven years in the state of Florida. Just because they’re not 6-3, 6-4, that doesn’t define what a quarterback is.”
But in the minds of many major-college recruiters, it did. In one of their last meetings at Ponte Vedra, Orth told Loyd that he wanted to be a starting quarterback in the SEC. The head coach told him to pursue his dream. He could always transfer to a smaller school and play immediately if it didn’t work out.
“It came down to whether he wanted to play right away at a smaller school, or wait two or three years and fight for a job,” said Orth’s older brother Calvin, a former baseball player at The Citadel. “But it was always his dream to play Division I. South Carolina was the place where he wanted to be.”
Orth had met USC’s staff at head coach Steve Spurrier’s summer camp, so he placed a call to recruiting coordinator Steve Spurrier Jr. asking about the possibility of walking on. Spurrier Jr. showed Orth’s high school film to quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus, who approved inviting Orth to camp as a preferred walk-on. Orth had a similar offer from South Florida, but wanted to play for Spurrier at USC.
“I said, you know what, I’m going to come up, work as hard as I possibly can, and see what happens. That was my mindset,” Orth said. “I knew coming in as a walk-on, you don’t get as many opportunities as a scholarship guy or whatever, but I never really worried about that. I just tried to make the most of my opportunities when they came.”
Orth applied to USC, was wait-listed until the following January, and spent a semester at Florida State College before arriving in Columbia in early 2013. He played briefly against Coastal Carolina his first season, then briefly against Furman the next. Placed on scholarship in preseason camp, he took over in last week’s loss to Kentucky after starter Connor Mitch went down with a separated shoulder, and led a comeback attempt that fell four points short.
His poise and charisma have immediately endeared him to USC’s fan base, to the point where a few Columbia businesses are flashing “Orthquake” warnings on their electric signs. Left off the travel squad two years ago, Orth seems unruffled making his first trip to Georgia (2-0, 1-0 SEC). Nobody who knows him is surprised.
“He’s an extremely confident guy, and just nothing seems to faze him,” said USC walk-on tight end Hayden Hurst, who’s known Orth since they were 12. “He’ll come out here and throw a bad pass, and it will be on to the next play. It doesn’t affect him. It’s an awesome quality to have in a quarterback.”
When Orth took over at Ponte Vedra, Loyd said he saw his team’s confidence level and offensive flow improve immediately. Watching SEC Network last Saturday from Oklahoma, he saw the same thing happen for the Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1), who scored 15 points after Orth took the field.
“He elevates the people around him,” said Loyd, whose son wears No. 4 because Orth wore it at Ponte Vedra. “That’s competitive greatness — you make the players around you better when it means something.”
And that can’t be measured on a scale.
“I’ve trained quarterbacks across the country, and I knew Perry could play,” Loyd said. “Perry wasn’t 6-3, 6-4, didn’t run a 4.3 or 4.4, but people didn’t understand his work ethic, his heart. He’s got the it factor.”