Soon to be University of Florida student athlete Joseph Putu has been a well-traveled man. This fall he will make his way to Gainesville, Florida to begin writing a new chapter in his life. Joseph was born in the Ivory Coast, moved to Silver Spring, Maryland at eight years old, then to Providence, Rhode Island with his mother, where he would begin his football career as a Pop-Warner and high school football player.
Joseph was new to the game of football and knew he needed the experience to get better and become a contributor on his high school team at Mt. Pleasant. Putu was playing two games every weekend. Saturday’s he was playing high school football and Sundays he was playing Pop Warner.
As a young player, Putu wanted to make the most of his opportunity and that was quickly recognized by his youth football coach and assistant coach on his high school football team, John Benton.
“His desire” Coach Benton quickly answered on what he saw in Putu at a young age that made him know Joseph would be able to compete at a high level.
“I told Joseph all the time, I see that he has the athletic ability and he was going to be tall. So I always told him, he has to be better than those guys we play against. I don’t care who it is. You always got to be the best guy on the football field” Benton Said. “Every time we went to a camp he had no problem being consistently one of the best players in that camp. Being from Rhode Island it is still hard to get that notoriety.” He continued.
Coach Benton has always been a believer in Putu’s ability. For others it came as a surprise. While attending a Nike SPARQ camp in New Jersey with his cousin and friends, Putu was quickly noticed by Randall Bennett, former Grambling and Arena football offensive lineman and co-founder of Greatness Sustained Recruiting Services in Cromwell, Connecticut.
“The first time I see these kids, these kids are built like guys that are in my locker room.” Bennett said.
Following that camp, Bennett worked out Putu for the summer to enhance his wide receiver skills. Bennett noticed his natural ability as a receiver as well as his ball skills. While building up his skills to play wide receiver something else began to transition in Putu’s game and his future in football would take a turn his junior season at Mt. Pleasant.
“They moved him to defense and all of a sudden, he explodes. His natural ability for catching the football, it translates to corner so well, and then he gets 10 interceptions.” Bennett expressed.
“I was like okay, we’ve got something on our hands; this kid is pretty good.” He added.
According to Coach Benton the switch to defensive back was not an obvious choice for the Mt. Pleasant coaching staff.
“Because he had to play defensive end for us his sophomore year. He [Head Coach] wanted to keep him there. I’m like, but he is not going to be a defensive end in college.” Benton said.
Benton continued to express his feelings that Putu should be moved to defensive back. “He’s probably one of the best defensive backs in the state, if not the best safety and we had to actually argue. And the first day we went to defensive practice, I just told Joseph to go to safety. And the coach just gave me a glare, like, you better be right. I was like, I know I’m right”
That move to safety put Joseph Putu in a position to have a very successful high school career. He finished his high school career with state championships every year he was there as well as all-state recognition in football his junior and senior years. Joseph was not just a star on the gridiron, he was also second team all-state in basketball and an all-state team member in track.
One would think a young man that accomplished would garner more attention but being from an area that is typically not a recruiting hot bed he fell through the cracks. That lack of attention has not stopped him from pursuing his dream and eventually the attention came his way.
John Benton did not stop helping getting Joseph the notoriety he deserved, he was surprised it took so long.
“When the recruiting on him picked up, I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised it took so long.”
The Mt. Pleasant staff knew what they had in Putu but the initial contact with the staff at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, North Dakota, was not all about Putu.
“His high school football coach actually contacted our head football coach and it was initially about Putu but it wasn’t. It was actually about Randolph Zleh who was the star running back, up there in Providence, Rhode Island.” NDSCS Defensive Coordinator Eric Francis said.
NDSCS was recruiting Zleh, as well as Putu and his brother. During the recruiting process Joseph’s career nearly got derailed by a Visa and financial aid concern but while that was getting worked out Coach Francis continued to pursue them. Francis would use Facebook and do his best to break the ice and make them feel comfortable about moving from Rhode Island to North Dakota.
Getting Putu and his brother to North Dakota was a priority for Coach Francis. Like John Benton and Randall Bennett, Putu’s skill were quickly noticed by Coach Francis.
“The thing that popped off to me was his ball skills and the second thing was his length and how versatile he was.” Francis said. “Being that he played wide receiver and defensive back. I’m the type of coach that likes aggressive guys and he actually displayed that on film.”
When the announcement of Putu’s signing was made, I found myself searching the internet to gather information and find some film. Like Coach Francis, the first thing I noticed was that Putu was always around the ball. You could see that he was not afraid to go get the ball.
Before the final decision to attend Florida, Putu had been committed to play for Arkansas. Though we may have not known about Joseph, he was not a stranger to Gainesville.
“As much as he enjoyed his visit at Arkansas, little do people know, Putu had actually been going to Florida over the break with another teammate and he absolutely loved it in Florida” Francis stated.
With his time of arrival drawing near, there are questions surrounding Putu. With the most common one being, does he have the ability to compete at an SEC level? For Randall Bennett he has no doubt Putu’s ability will allow him to be a contributor for the Gators.
“When I think about Florida, I think about guys like Joe Haden. I always thought Joe Haden was a beast, but he can play aggressive like that because he has Major Wright behind him.” Bennett noted.
Bennett continued to express his excitement for Putu’s potential.
“I don’t know what Joseph could be, if he had a safety like that behind him. That’ll allow him to be aggressive. He has a feel for where the route is going to break, and he can read the quarterback well. For him to play more aggressive, I don’t know, I am excited to see what he could be.”
While Putu’s mentors and coaches are very confident, there is always a challenge for JUCO athletes when it comes to transitioning to the FBS level. Often the athleticism takes adjusting to on top of the normal everyday life adjustments that come with being in a new city. Putu believes his path of moving from the Ivory Coast to eventually ending up in North Dakota will help with his transition to Gainesville, on and off the field.
“I’ve been moving a lot, it’s really not a big deal. I can go up there put the work in and feel ready to fit right into the system, [and] buy into what the coaches are teaching” Putu stated.
Florida will enter the 2016 season with one of the best secondary’s in the country. A roster that already includes Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye, who will all compete for all-conference honors as well as some other players looking to make more of an impact. Putu did not shy away from the competition. He recognizes the Florida Gators tradition at the position and is willing to learn from those already on campus.
“The Gators were DBU and they run the 4-2-5 defense which is easier for me to come in and master and I could go up there and learn from a good DB guy Quincy, Tabor and Nick and Duke”
It will not be easy for Putu come August. Coach Benton and his brother former Boston College basketball player Jamie Benton have played intricate roles in the development of Putu. They would frequently speak to him about competing against upper division athletes and what it took to be good at that level.
“If you’re a D-1 athlete, you can’t be these guys you’re playing against. And he had no problem showing that. I took him to a few football camps out of state, so he could see the level of athlete that he needed to be to play at the next level.” Benton expressed.
Those talks place a characteristic in Putu makes him embrace hard work. Eric Francis who has coached Putu for the last two years had first hand knowledge of his willingness to be great.
“Putu actually spends a lot of time outside of football practice working on other things, whether it’s his backpedaling or high pointing the ball or tackling, there’s always something that he’s working on” Francis said. “Putu will transition well because we always talk about being competitive here and for him to be in the position he’s in right now is because he competed, he competed against the guys we brought in and he didn’t give up, he didn’t pout about anything, he just continued to work”
Coach Francis also added that Putu’s dedication was required in other jobs that were not football related. “He worked three different jobs while being in Junior College and being able to pay for summer school out of his pocket, that’s hardworking and that’s dedication.”
The words about Putu’s effort and hard work were echoed by Coach Bennett. When asked what Florida fans should expect from Putu, he continued to rave about Putu’s work ethic.
“There about to get a guy that they are used to seeing in terms of work ethic. Florida is not a place that they’re talking about guys they’ve got to fire up. He’ll be a guy that shows up on Saturday’s and when he runs through the tunnel it’s going to be 100% every time.”
When it comes to recruiting, there can be a tendency to place unrealistic expectations on players. Often times the most we can ask for is the willingness to work and that is the expectation from the John Bennett, Randall Bennett and Eric Francis. As for Joseph, he is motivated to prove that his starting point does not determine his destination. When asked what Florida fans are getting, his answer was simple and to the point.
“I’m hardworking, humble and I’ll give it my all”