When C.J. Cole decided to pass on scholarship opportunities and instead accept a preferred walk-on offer at West Virginia, he mentioned at the time that one of the reasons he chose the Mountaineers was that they still treated him like he was a scholarship player.
That was a little over four years ago, and Cole said that treatment has never wavered.
But when spring practices get underway next month, Cole won’t just be treated like he’s a scholarship player.
He will literally be one.
Cole is a 2020 graduate of McGuffey High School who will be a redshirt junior wide receiver/special teams ace for West Virginia this fall. Following West Virginia’s win against North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl on Dec. 27, Cole was informed by coach Neal Brown that he was being placed on scholarship.
Here’s the thing, though — Cole’s scholarship is for the spring semester only. Nothing beyond then is guaranteed.
“If anything, it’s going to keep motivating me hard to keep the scholarship. That’s never changed,” said Cole, who chose to walk on at West Virginia over offers from Division II programs. “Not a day goes by that I’m not happy that I chose WVU. They made me feel like a scholarship player and have given me opportunities.”
And Cole (6 feet 4, 207 pounds) continues to make the most of them, which likely comes as no surprise to his former coaches and teachers at McGuffey, where he was an outstanding student and three-sport athlete. No person at the school is likely more familiar with Cole than athletic director and former football coach Ed Dalton.
“I don’t know if I can be much happier for a student athlete, and I can tell you that I’m not singular,” Dalton said. “If you talk to his track coach, he would tell you the same thing. If you talk to his basketball coach, he would say the same thing. And if you talk to his English teacher, she would tell you the same thing.”
This sets up to be an important spring for Cole, but that was also the case a year ago when Cole’s impressive spring showing earned him the Tommy Nickolich Memorial Award, which is presented annually to a walk-on at West Virginia who has distinguished himself through his attitude and work ethic.
“It’s given to someone who has a good attitude and work ethic, and those are two things I take pride in,” said Cole, a former academic All-Big 12 Conference honoree who majors in sports management. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those two things. It was rewarding, but I knew the job wasn’t done.”
Cole then went out and had his best season yet. After excelling as a member of the scout team early on in his career, Cole played in all 13 games last season when he was a starter on both the punt return and kickoff return units and also got some run at wide receiver, making his first two career catches in a game against Duquesne.
A strong case can be made for Cole being the best athlete to ever come out of McGuffey. Not only was Cole a football star (he had 26 catches for 592 yards and 10 touchdowns his senior season), but he also holds the school’s career scoring record for basketball and was a WPIAL track and field gold medalist in the triple jump.
Cole’s recruitment consisted mostly of Division II schools. IUP offered, as did Slippery Rock, West Liberty and Seton Hill. But Cole had a dream of playing at the Division I level, one that his coach supported.
“Coach Dalton played a huge role,” Cole recalled. “He was really one of the first ones that said, ‘You could go to the Division I level and play.’ He really helped me in recruiting. He stuck out his neck for me.”
Added Dalton, “I just think he had all the non-talent skills to start with. On time, working hard, doing what he was supposed to do, listening, taking coaching. Once you have all of those things, now where are you on the scope of athletes? He was definitely on the high end of the curve for us, but that doesn’t mean he’s on the high end for WVU or someone like that.”
The summer before Cole’s senior season at McGuffey, the Highlanders attended a team camp at West Virginia. Cole called it “one of my better camps” and said that was when Brown put the thought in his head about potentially walking on at West Virginia. Cole ultimately decided to do just that and was one of three freshman preferred walk-ons in 2020. One of the others was fellow wide receiver Preston Fox, who earned a scholarship prior to the 2022 season before going on to finish third on the team in catches last season.
“It was a learning experience going from a star player to holding bags for someone in practice, but I knew one day it would pay off,” Cole said. “We live in a society where everything is about instant gratification. Not a lot of people are seeing things through. Knowing my time will come through hard work is very important to me.”
As is seeing the results of that hard work. Chances are you have seen one of those cool videos of a walk-on being placed on scholarship. Their coach relays the news, the player’s teammates go crazy, and the player is sometimes left stunned. Well, that’s not what happened when Cole got his special news in a locker room at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. This conversation was much more private.
“Coach Brown pulled me to the side and said, ‘We’re going to take care of you this spring,’” Cole remembered. “I’m very grateful for that. My dad is a truck driver, and my mom is a school teacher. It’s not like I came from a whole lot, so that’s important.”
Cole’s parents, Jack and Melissa, were at the game, as was his sister, Emily, his longtime girlfriend, Jadyn Hartner, and a few cousins.
After speaking with Brown, Cole said he texted his parents, “I’ve got some big news. Just wait for me to come out.” But by the time Cole finally made his way out, “I think they had figured it out.”
“There aren’t even words to describe it,” Cole added. “Every walk-on just dreams of it.”
Cole is a scholarship football player at West Virginia (for now), but this one-time walk-on said that even if it had never happened, he still would have no regrets.
“I would do it the exact same way,” he said. “I wanted to be a scholarship guy. I wanted to play with the best of the best. And there was an opportunity here. I just wouldn’t do anything differently, because in 20 to 30 years I want to say that I played Division I football and I played for the West Virginia Mountaineers.”