COLUMBIA — Coming out of spring practice, South Carolina’s No. 2 tight end was a four-star prospect also recruited by LSU and Florida State. At about the same time, Hayden Hurst was playing professional baseball in the Gulf Coast League. Now Hurst is backing up starter Jerell Adams — and the four-star recruit is nowhere to be found on the depth chart.
“Four months ago I was playing baseball in south Florida, and here I am in the SEC,” said Hurst, who prior to this season hadn’t played football since his junior year in high school. “Pretty crazy.”
South Carolina fans might use another adjective. Hurst was one of 13 current or former walk-ons who played in the Gamecocks’ loss last Saturday to Kentucky, many of them occupying important roles on the field. Former walk-on Carlton Heard started at USC’s third receiver position. Walk-on tight end Jacob August caught a pass. And former walk-on quarterback Perry Orth relieved the injured Connor Mitch, and led a second-half comeback which fell four points short.
With Mitch out for several more weeks with a deep hip bruise and a separated throwing shoulder, Orth — placed on scholarship in preseason camp — will make his first career start Saturday at No. 7 Georgia. While current and former walk-ons have always played key positions on special teams, USC is also suddenly relying on several in an offense which has seen some scholarship players lost to injury, and others which have yet to pan out.
It’s most notable at receiver — where Heard and walk-on Matrick Belton both figure into the rotation — and tight end, where Hurst and August have become the primary backups to Adams. Some of that is due to season-ending injuries like those suffered by freshman receivers Shaq Davidson and Jerad Washington, both in line to play this season. But it doesn’t help that some scholarship players like tight end Kevin Crosby and receiver Shamier Jeffery have often struggled to live up to billing.
“The scholarship guys have not been quite the hit that maybe we thought that they were going to be,” said USC head coach Steve Spurrier. “But ... we give everybody a chance. And sometimes these walk-on players, I don’t know if they work a little harder or are out to prove more, but it’s turned out that over the years I’ve had a lot of good walk-on players.”
Chief among them is Orth, a junior who claimed the backup quarterback spot over true freshman Lorenzo Nunez and redshirt freshman Michael Scarnecchia, both recruited as scholarship players. Other current or former walk-ons who played against Kentucky included receiver Sean Odom, kick returners Darius Paulk and Rod Talley, kickers Landon Ard and Elliott Fry, punter Sean Kelly, snapper Drew Williams and fullback Rivers Bedenbaugh.
“It means we’ve got some good walk-ons here,” said Steve Spurrier Jr., USC’s recruiting coordinator. “You look back at some of the walk-ons across the country, I started thinking about (receiver Justin) Hardy from East Carolina, an All-American. There are a lot of great walk-ons that get passed up and don’t get the opportunities they deserve. And then there are a lot of guys who are overrated. We’ve stumbled into some good ones, and they’ve done well for us.”
But the Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1 SEC) have also whiffed on some scholarship players. USC’s three straight 11-win seasons were fueled by recruiting classes in which the top prospects — like Marcus Lattimore, A.J. Cann and Victor Hampton in 2010, and Jadeveon Clowney, Brandon Shell and Kelcey Quarles in 2011 — proved as good as advertised. More recent classes, though, have been more hit-and-miss.
The 2012 class brought standout running back Mike Davis, but also receiver Shaq Roland — on and off suspension for much of his USC career before leaving the program last season — and offensive lineman Brock Stadnik, forced to give up football due to injuries. Cornerback Wesley Green, among the highest-rated players in USC’s 2014 class, has transferred, while Crosby isn’t even on the depth chart. A number of other players have yet to make their mark.
“Obviously we think a lot of them still can be very good players, but yeah, we’ve missed on some guys. There’s no question about it,” the elder Spurrier said. “Some guys we had thought were going to be really good, just did not work out.”
In fairness, many of the current or former walk-ons now playing key roles for USC — like Orth, Hurst, Fry and Kelly — were “preferred” walk-ons, in that coaches saw film of their high school games and asked them to join the team, with an eye toward a scholarship eventually becoming available. And Georgia (2-0, 1-0) starts one former walk-on in cornerback Aaron Davis, while another, Christian Payne, splits time with Quayvon Hicks at fullback.
“Almost every year, I’ve had two, three, four guys who were walk-ons who got put on aid, and it was more than just special teams,” said Bulldogs coach Mark Richt. “Once guys come in, if they prove they can do it, they get rewarded. Sometimes guys prove they can do it, and I don’t have enough scholarships to give out, so I can’t reward them. That’s the hard part.”
It seems unlikely, though, that Georgia will have one former walk-on complete a pass to another — which happened twice for USC against Kentucky, when Orth found Heard and August.
“I think coach Spurrier does a really good job of giving everybody equal opportunity,” Hurst said. “If you work and you outplay some guys, you’re going to get your chances here.”