Back in December, Jonathan Walton made a verbal commitment to Penn State over Minnesota. The other schools that had extended offers up to that point: Arkansas State, Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama, Troy, and UAB.
Enter South Carolina. A little over two weeks after his commitment to the Nittany Lions, Gamecock linebackers coach Kirk Botkin informed Walton that he had an offer from USC, setting off a chain reaction. In the following days, the three-star linebacker would pick up several other SEC offers, from Auburn, Tennessee, and Ole Miss. Shortly thereafter, he officially decommitted from Penn State.
Walton told GamecockCentral.com that the sudden interest that poured in from the SEC took him by surprise, but that he was happy to hear of it because it was his preferred conference.
"I mean, I knew Penn State was going to bring a little publicity once I made my commitment," he said. "I didn't think I was going to pick up offers like that. They just came in. I was pretty satisfied with my school until I got my SEC offers, which I was looking for the whole time."
Walton, who graduated recently, was the subject of a recruiting battle between the Gamecocks and in-state Auburn that went down to the wire. Botkin and South Carolina ultimately won out, but just how close was it?
"I mean, it was pretty close. Auburn, I have a lot of friends there. It's close to home and I would have done fine there," Walton explained. "I felt like I would do good at South Carolina. It was just a little different. It's farther away. I was ready for that move."
The 6-foot-1, 235-pounder played both linebacker and running back for Bayside. As a senior, he tallied 122 tackles and blocked two punts while adding 41 rushes for 401 yards (9.8 yards per carry). One other difference between Auburn and South Carolina was the position each recruited him at; Auburn at h-back, South Carolina as a linebacker.
"I did want to play defense," Walton said. "I love the defense that South Carolina ran. I talked it over with my coach a lot, my position coach and my recruiter. They run a similar defense and I felt pretty comfortable with the position I was at. I would have been comfortable on either side of the ball. I felt like a defensive player."
In the final days leading up to his announcement, Walton went quiet and avoiding speaking with the media or talking publicly about the process.
"It got to the point where I just had to leave it (phone). I was still kind of confused in a few spots with what I was going to do. I just thought about what I wanted."
Spurning the in-state program for an out-of-state school always brings some backlash, but Walton said that in his case it was nothing serious.
"I mostly get 'you should have gone to Auburn, but we will still support you.'"
Walton counts Botkin, his future position coach, as a big factor in his choosing the Gamecocks.
"It was a big factor. Of course I want to play for a coach I like and I love Coach Botkin. He broke down the defense, showed me where I fit in," he said. "They have some similar linebackers to my size in the defense also. He was very influential."
The Alabama product will enroll at South Carolina early in June for the first summer session and get to work in the classroom and weight room. He projects to begin his career as a WILL linebacker.
"This weight will be fine for me, I'm going to just solid up," he said. "I'm not trying to get any heavier; just trying to work on my speed. I have pretty good speed."
Walton also said that playing for a college football legend in Steve Spurrier is something that he looks forward to in Columbia.
"It means a lot. I've always been a Spurrier fan. It's going to be an honor playing for him," he said. "It's pretty great. The records he has held and the things he's already done there. I'm just going into a good program right now and just helping keep it up."
USC lost its entire two deep from the 2012 season heading in the 2013 campaign, and Walton helps to take advantage by seeing the field early.
"They have told me there is some early playing time available. My goal is to get out there and make a major impact and do something for my team."