College football teams have increasingly come up with elaborate ways to hand out scholarships to walk-ons, but nobody has done it quite like Jay Norvell just minutes after Nevada’s Arizona Bowl overtime victory last weekend.
Standing atop the stage inside Arizona Stadium after receiving the bowl trophy, Norvell raved about the play of little-known wide receiver Ben Putman, a first-year player for the Wolf Pack who starred in the win.
“Where you at Ben?” Norvell yelled during his national television interview. “Ben Putman. He’s a walk-on, but he just got put on scholarship right now!”
Putman walked onto the stage to give Norvell a hug before returning to celebrate with his teammates. There was a catch, however. Putman hadn’t heard the scholarship announcement. In the excitement on the field, he knew Norvell mentioned his name, which is why he walked to the stage, but he didn't know what his coach said.
Several minutes later, Putman’s teammate, Theo Goodwin, pulled out his phone to post to Snapchat.
“He was taking a video of me saying, ‘How does it feel to be on scholarship?’” Putman said. “He caught me off guard but then he explained it to me.”
Putman was indeed going from anonymous walk-on to bowl star on scholarship.
“I was, like, ‘What?’” Putman said of his first impression. “I was surprised. I didn’t think coaches put people on scholarship right after games. I thought it was more of a spring ball thing or fall camp. I was definitely surprised, but after I saw that I was super excited and super happy to be a part of the team.”
Entering the Arizona Bowl, Putman figured he’d get more playing time with the departure of McLane Mannix, the team’s top pass-catcher who transferred to Texas Tech after the regular season. That moved him up to the backup slot position alongside Dominic Christian. But after two more starters – Kaleb Fossum and Romeo Doubs – suffered game-ending injuries, Putman was thrust into an even larger role.
Nevada’s offense struggled for most of the game, posting nearly as many turnovers (two) as points (three) over its first 14 series before Putman sparked the Wolf Pack in its final two drives. He reeled in a 44-yard pass off a flea-flicker on the team’s second-to-last regular-season possession, which ended on downs inside the Red Wolves’ 25-yard line. And with Nevada trailing 10-7 and in need of a touchdown on its final possession, it was Putman who made the biggest play of regulation, catching a wheel route and running 44 yards to the Arkansas State 1-yard line. The Wolf Pack pounded it into the end zone on the next play before winning in overtime.
“That last play, I wasn’t even running it in practice,” Putman said. “That was for Foss, but he was hurt. I just ran a little wheel route up the sideline. The corner stayed down and the safety was nowhere in sight, so I was open up the sideline. I’m mad I tripped before the end zone. It would have been a lot of cooler if I scored there. I was trying to put a little juke on the safety, but it didn’t really work in my favor.”
Putman ended the game with a team-high four catches for 114 yards (no other Wolf Pack player had more than 31 receiving yards). He also had two tackles in the game, his main role during the regular season coming on special teams (Putman didn’t have a catch at Nevada prior to the Arizona Bowl).
When you envision a college football walk-on, he usually looks like the under-sized Putman, who at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds isn’t an overwhelming figure physically. Putman, who has bright red hair, didn’t have much interest coming out of Novato High in the Bay Area. Some NAIA schools scouted him, but his size played against him.
“I was probably 5-7 or 5-8 and 160 at the time,” Putman said.
Putman, who also played lacrosse in high school, had a decision: go to a junior college or stop playing football. With a dream of playing Division I ball, Putman enrolled at Santa Rosa JC, where he starred for two seasons, including a 63-catch, 809-yard, seven-touchdown final campaign. That was good enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Sioux Falls, a Division II school in South Dakota.
“I went there for the first part of the summer and I just wasn’t really into South Dakota,” Putman said. “I didn’t like living there and I wanted to play at a bigger program, so I talked to my parents and ended up de-committing from Sioux Falls and redshirted that season because I had nowhere to play.”
Putman sat out the 2017 season, emailing “50 coaches a day just trying to get a response.” Most ignored him. Some answered to say their roster was full and to check back closer to the season. With less than two weeks to go before Nevada started school, Wolf Pack assistant coach David White emailed Putman back.
“He said, ‘We don’t have any scholarship spots but you can walk on if you want,’” Putman said. “That was my one shot, so I took a chance at it.”
Putman started at the bottom of the roster. After a fall camp he described as difficult, Putman was put on the scout team at the beginning of the season, essentially being on the practice team with minimal shot of actually getting on the field in games. The scout team wasn’t exactly where he wanted to be.
“I wouldn’t say I was mad, but I wanted a chance to play and I wanted to get on the field,” Putman said. “After the Portland State game, I thought, ‘This is a Division I program. If I want to play I have to keep my head down and grind it out and do well.’ I started off on scout team and my No. 1 goal was to prove what I could do on scout team against the No. 1 defense. I went as hard as I could every single practice, took advantage of my reps and ended up making it off scout team practicing with the offense.”
That promotion came during the middle of the regular season, although in-game reps outside of special teams were sparse. Putman was making progress, however, and after Mannix transferred, his path to the field became more likely. Putman caught his first college pass early in the second quarter against Arkansas State, reeling in a 21-yarder. He later added a five-yard reception before the two 44-yard plays in the fourth quarter. An equally unlikely player – tight end Reagan Roberson – caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime while Christian hauled in three passes for 31 yards, including one on fourth-and-7 on the final drive. Those three entered the game with one catch this season, but totaled nine receptions for 164 yards and one touchdown in the Arizona Bowl win.
“I’m just super excited for everyone like Reagan and Dom,” Putman said. “They stepped up when they needed to do. It’s hard when you’re just sitting on the sideline all year. For them to have their number called and make plays like that was huge. Dom made a huge play on fourth down to keep the drive alive and Reagan scored the game-winning touchdown. It just goes to show we’re a great team, we don’t give up no matter where we are. I was really happy for all of us.”
Putman is thrilled to have earned a scholarship, but he’s more excited for what the Arizona Bowl might do for him heading into his senior season next year.
“I wanted to show the coaches this season I could actually get on the field and make plays just so they’d give me a legitimate shot heading into next year,” Putman said. “I’m definitely happy about how it turned out. You look at the big picture and it was one game. I still have a lot to prove. I’m just happy I got that opportunity, so I have a little foot in the door for next year so I can work for that slot position and can contribute for my teammates.”
Putman was so unknown heading into the game, Norvell accidentally called him Ben “Putnum” on national television when announcing he’d earned a scholarship. That didn’t bug the receiver. He used to it.
“So many people call me ‘Putnum’ I don’t even try and fix them anymore,” he said.
After Nevada's win in the Arizona Bowl, Wolf Pack fans should remember the name.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.