Bryan Bennett is Oregon’s backup quarterback. He’s never played a live down of college football, but he’s one disastrous snap from being the starter on a national championship contender. For some guys, that would make them swallow hard every time Darron Thomas took a shot delivering the football.
But Bryan Bennett has some resources and experiences most young backups have never had. For one, he’s a terrific fit for the Oregon spread offense, athletic at 6-2, 193 (his listed size at goducks.com, probably a little more filled out than that by now) with good quickness and explosion, as witnessed by his 32.5-inch vertical leap, tops among the kickers and quarterbacks. Many folks think he’s faster than Thomas, although in winter testing neither shined in raw foot-speed (Thomas, 4.93; Bennett 5.0). Watching practice it often looks like the young understudy gets around the corner a little quicker. No one can deny he throws a beautiful ball, with zip, accuracy, and the ability to hit the deep routes.
Bennett has good tools, and he could be a great starting quarterback one day. Trouble is, football is a collision sport, and someday could be as soon as the third play of the LSU game. Chip Kelly doesn’t believe in jinxes, but he does believe fervently in preparation. “Luck favors the prepared mind,” he’s fond of saying. Duck fans can bet that Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich are teaching Bennett to prepare like the starter and compete like he wants to be one, because that might happen far sooner than anyone would want.
The redshirt freshman has a lot to draw on if he faces that eventuality. For one, he’s done it before. As a sophomore at Crespi High in Encino, California, Bennett was backup to now-UCLA starter Kevin Prince. The Celtics were a senior-laden team, and favorites to win their league. Until Prince went down in the first game, and Bennett, with just a year of freshman ball, had to grab his helmet and call a play. How’d he do? Well, he passed for 2,133 yards and 17 touchdowns, leading Crespi to an 11-3 record and the state championship game, where they lost to powerhouse Long Beach Poly of ESPN fame.
Bennett went on to be a three-year starter at Crespi, passing for over 6000 yards and 53 touchdowns in his prep career. He went from raw rookie to the man, and matured quickly under fire. Overcoming that pressure and staying within himself had to be an incredible challenge. It takes confidence to succeed in that situation. It takes trust and coachability. If Bryan got the same kind of call as a Duck, he can draw deeply on the experience of having done it before.
Another great benefit the young Webfoot has enjoyed is the experience of his redshirt year. He got to work with DT. He got to observe close-hand how Nate Costa handled the backup role, how he carried himself and prepared. He could not have had a more outstanding example. Bennett traveled to every game, and took snaps as the primary backup for the last three games of the season and the month leading up to the national championship game. Two great things happened. He got a lot of teaching and exposure, and he emerged from that first year with his redshirt intact. Working with an incomplete group of receivers and a stitched-together offensive line in the spring game, he was 10-18 passing for 98 yards. He did a nice job of finding the tight end, connecting with David Paulson four times for 42 yards. That’s an indication of his football intelligence, finding Paulson early and often. A sure-handed tight end is a young quarterback’s best friend. The routes are simple and easy to execute. He’s big, reliable and easy to find. He’ll do something after you get him the ball.
Rob Moseley of the Register-Guard recently did a summer feature on Bennett and his experience at the Manning Passing Camp. Operated by former NFL MVP Archie Manning and his sons, including current NFL stars Peyton and Eli, the camp is a week-long instructional experience for high school quarterbacks. Working as a counselor, Bennett had the opportunity to observe three accomplished pro passers up close, as well as getting to know some of the nation’s best college quarterbacks in a different way, with the other counselors including Andrew Luck, Nick Foles, and LSU’s Jordan Jefferson. Bennett told Moseley, “It allowed me to measure myself against those guys, and also to see the way the Mannings act, just kind of that poise,”
One of the most reliable truisms in life is that we become what we think about, and we tend to become like the people we’re around. Bennett’s character as a quarterback has been shaped by the experience of overcoming adversity and unexpected pressure at a very young age, and the enormous blessing of interacting with some of the sharpest people in football. He’s a smart kid who soaks it in.
Ideally, Bryan will get a chunk of snaps in the Southwest Missouri game and in game three versus Nevada. The Ducks will likely have another three or four opportunities during the year when they’re comfortably ahead and Bennett can take the reins. He’ll continue his apprenticeship. He’ll develop his gifts, and develop timing with Oregon’s promising young receivers.
But if the worst happens, and he has to buckle his chinstrap and take over cold, he’s done that before. And he knows what it takes to succeed in that situation.