National Championship game: North Hall's Pender knew his former quarterback Stetson Bennett had chance to be special from time together at Pierce County

Jan. 5—The rise of Georgia's Stetson Bennett IV from walk-on to Heisman Trophy finalist and All-Southeastern Conference starting quarterback of one national championship team, and perhaps a second, is well documented.

The Bulldogs redshirt senior signal caller's success may have come as a complete surprise to many college football observers.

However, one person who was not surprised at all is Sean Pender, who recently completed his first season as head coach at North Hall High and coached Bennett during his high school career at Pierce County High School, in Blackshear, from 2013-16.

And with Bennett and No. 1 Georgia preparing to go for their second-straight national championship in Monday night's title game against third-ranked Texas Christian at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, Pender, took time Wednesday to share his thoughts and memories of his former quarterback.

While Bennett's career at Georgia and future in football after Monday's game is still unfolding, there is no doubt in Pender's mind what his place in history will be.

"He's the best quarterback I've ever coached," Pender said of Bennett, who led Pierce County to a 26-11 record and three straight Class 3A state playoff berths, including two runs to the quarterfinals, in his three years as a Bears starter. "I've been a head football coach now for 20 years, so for him to play at the next level and perform at a high level, I think it was obvious he'd be able to do that coming out of high school, even though he wasn't highly recruited. I think that was (based on) measurables."

Pender knew Bennett had plenty of potential to play in a major college program based on what he'd seen over those three seasons as his starting quarterback.

Time after time, he saw Bennett come up with clutch moments to help the Bears compete against some of the best competition Georgia had to offer, beginning with the first start of his career.

"Him and another quarterback were rotating, but the other quarterback was starting," Pender recalled. "That quarterback broke his thumb the game before. We ended up winning that game in overtime, but the next game was Tattnall County, and (Bennett) throws four touchdown passes in the first half. That was a (sign) that you knew you had something special.

"When you talk about clutch moments, there was one game (against Jenkins during his junior season in 2015) that we went triple overtime, and we won that game 64-62. He just made some clutch plays right there at the end of the game because we had to come back. We were down three scores in that game, and we came back on Stetson's arm and kept pushing."

Still, there were those pesky "measurables" the Pender spoke of earlier, which many college coaches were caught up in when it came to Bennett, who is currently listed at just 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, and was even smaller coming out of Pierce County.

As a result, expectations were tempered somewhat for his recruitment.

"I've been doing this a long time, and I've seen a lot of coaches use the formula about measurements and stuff," Pender said. "They kind of know what they look for and a lot of times, they're right. Sometimes, they guess wrong. The ones that guess right are the ones who are still keeping their jobs. The ones that are guessing wrong are the ones always looking for jobs."

Given how hard for a lot of college programs to look past the measurables, Pender knew that Bennett's scholarship options were somewhat limited.

Middle Tennessee State was the only FBS-level program who offered him one, while his other offers came from FCS schools like Mercer and Samford or Division II schools like Valdosta State.

But while some FBS programs did offer Bennett a preferred walk-on spot, Pender said there was only one such PWO slot he was interested in.

"The only FBS school was Middle Tennessee that actually offered him," Pender recalled. "Georgia Southern did not. They (offered) a preferred walk-on. Central Florida was a preferred walk-on. Southern (Mississippi), whom he would've committed to, only wanted to give him a preferred walk-on. If he was going to do a walk-on, he was going to do it at his favorite school — Georgia. The whole entire recruiting process, everything, was always (that) he really wanted to play for Georgia.

"You can't always measure somebody's ability to play this game by their size or strength or speed. There's the intangibles. There's that effort level. There's the smarts that come with it, and he has it. He's such a gritty competitor, trying to find ways to win. He's had that the whole time I've known him. I mean, you're talking about going back to when he was just a little man in elementary school. He'd be on the playground giving 100 percent trying to win. That's always been his M.O."

That willingness to leave everything on the field came in handy when he got to Georgia the first time as a walk-on member of the scout team, and then again after returning to Athens following a year at Jones Community College in Mississippi.

But while that quality was partially ingrained in Bennett by his parents Stetson III and Denise Bennett, they admit that Pender also had a strong influence on their son for the player and person he's become.

"Coach Pender has been in Stet's life since elementary school," Denise Bennett said. "Everything Stet's learned (about football) began (with Pender). ... It's amazing to have a coach in your life for that long. ... All my kids are very close with him. We just love him to death."

Still, it took Bennett a while to win over Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart and his offensive staff, which had a roster eventually filled with highly-rated and highly-recruited quarterbacks like Jake Fromm, J.T. Daniels, Carson Beck, Brock Vandagriff and Gunner Stockton.

However, the work he did when first called upon for five games during his redshirt season in 2020 and especially the last two seasons has been plenty convincing.

And yet, Bennett still has his doubters, something Smart acknowledged when he called him "one of the least respected good players in this country" before the current season.

"We all know his story," Smart said of Bennett during Georgia's session of SEC Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. "If you ever wanted to do a documentary, this guy's been through it. You look at what he's done and all he's been able to do."

Having also seen Bennett's potential first hand, Pender knows about his ability to prove doubters wrong, something he believes his former quarterback will have a chance to do again when the 2023 NFL Draft commences this spring.

"Even with him going to the NFL, because he is going to try ... after all this is over, it's the same thing," Pender said. "They'll (ask), 'Is his arm strong enough? Is he going to be durable enough?' All those same things that they've talked about (before), trying to talk about ... reasons not to recruit him for college. It'll be the same thing in the NFL.

"You don't know what you have until you have them on your roster, you have them in your meeting rooms, you have them on the field competing. That's when you know you have something special."

Bennett has a chance for one more special moment at Georgia in Monday night's title game.

As much as Pender would love to be there to see it live, there is too much going on with is current job for him to make the trip across the country.'

However, you can be sure he will be watching the game from afar.

"I was able to make it to the Peach Bowl (for the semifinal game on New Year's Eve)," Pender said. "And I've been in touch with him (through) messenger, and all that. ... But I've got my own stuff I (have to do).

"I would love to go, but going way out there (to Los Angeles) and the timing of the (American Football Coaches Association) convention (early next week in Charlotte), I'm going to be in the middle of that. I'll be watching the game from a good spot. You'd better believe that."