It took a change of course, but Bryan Bennett is on the road he wants to be: competing for championships and chasing his NFL dream.
"Ever since I was young, I've been saying I want to be a professional athlete," Bennett said. "For as long as I can [remember], it's been football. It's been the NFL. That's what I want to do. It's crazy how close it is now to being there."
Bennett is on track to achieve his goal, but it took an unexpected detour for him to get here.
"I came into a situation where I was looking to transfer," Bennett said. "Looking for a better opportunity to play."
He got that opportunity at Southeastern Louisiana University.
He enters the 2014 season as captain of a legitimate national championship contender in the Football Championship Subdivision. He’s a preseason favorite to contend for the Walter Payton Award, given to the subdivision's premier offensive player.
And, if all goes according to plan, Bennett will have his name called at next May's NFL draft.
The fact that all these lofty goals are within Bennett’s reach is not necessarily surprising. As a 4-star recruit out of Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, California, in 2010, 247Sports ranked Bennett the nation’s No. 9 pro-style quarterback.
His blend of prototypical size and pocket presence, combined with explosive mobility, made Bennett a fit for Chip Kelly's Oregon program.
The Ducks were fresh off the first of three straight conference championships under Kelly when Bennett committed. He'd have a redshirt season learning the ropes from Second Team All-Pac-10 honoree Jeremiah Masoli, then could compete for the starting job in 2011.
That's where Bennett's road to his football goals veers down an alternate route.
An Opportunity to Play
Quarterback is a unique position. Every other spot on the offensive and defensive lineups requires multiple players, whether simultaneously or in specific situations. Barring rare exceptions, just one quarterback plays in meaningful situations.
Falling behind on the depth chart is not necessarily an indictment of a quarterback's ability or potential—particularly not when he trails a once-in-a-generation kind of teammate.
"Unfortunately, Bryan was behind a guy [who] doesn't come around every year," Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said last month at Pac-12 media days.
Helfrich was the Ducks offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach during the 2012 season. In the offseason leading up to that campaign, Oregon had a heated quarterback competition unfolding between Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota.
The back-and-forth lasted until one week before the season opener. Kelly didn't name a starter until Aug. 24—and he went with Mariota.
Bennett was relegated to a reserve role in 2012, and by season's end, it became apparent that his best shot to play would be in a different uniform.
It was an interesting turn of fate. Just a few months prior, Bennett looked to be Oregon's quarterback of the future.
After redshirting in 2010, he made clean-up appearances against Nevada and Southeast Missouri State early in 2011.
Darron Thomas—the Ducks' starting quarterback in 2010 after Masoli was dismissed just before the season—sustained a leg injury against No. 18-ranked Arizona State on Oct. 15, 2011.
That night, Bennett got his first opportunity to shine in a high-profile situation. He rushed five times for 65 yards, helping the Ducks preserve a 41-27 win over the Sun Devils.
The next two weeks against Colorado and Washington State, Bennett factored more prominently into the game plan. He waylaid the Buffaloes for 156 yards passing and two touchdowns, with another 69 yards on the ground. A week later, he threw for another two scores in the Ducks' romp over the Cougars.
Thomas returned to finish the season, but his unexpected early entry into the 2012 NFL draft seemingly gave Bennett an inside track to keep the Oregon machine rolling and launch his individual career.
In a way, the Ducks' 2012 quarterback competition was responsible for launching two outstanding quarterback careers.
Heading into the 2014 season, Bennett and Mariota are in mirroring situations. Oregon and SLU both have legitimate national championship aspirations. Both are preseason favorites for their subdivisions' top honors.
Come May and the NFL draft, their career arcs could again follow similar trajectories. Both have good shots at succeeding after college.
I asked Helfrich if landing two quarterbacks who spent time together in the same program in the same draft qualified Oregon for the designation as the new "Quarterback U."
"I like the way you think," he joked.
Playing at Oregon may not have been the football path for which Bennett was destined, but he maintains ties to the program.
"[Oregon center] Hroniss Grasu, we were roommates. We went to school every day together in high school and then again in college," Bennett said. "That’s almost like family."
He also counts Josh Huff among his close Oregon friends. Huff reunited with Kelly on the Philadelphia Eagles roster.
Pursuing his opportunity may have required a change of scenery, but there's nothing but respect between Bennett and Oregon.
"I still care about them, care about their success, just as they do for me," he said. "You part ways sometimes, but it wasn’t a bad thing."
"I'm really happy for his future," Helfrich said. "I'll be a fan of his wherever he ends up."
The positive note on which Bennett left Oregon carried over into his new role as starting quarterback at SLU.
Lions head coach Ron Roberts welcomes transfer players, but he expects a certain attitude from a newcomer into his program.
"He's got to be a team guy," Roberts said. "He can't fall into the [mindset of], 'I'm not getting recognition or fame,' or that there's not 80,000 people in the stadium, and he isn't getting seven pairs of shoes.
"Bryan's not that. He's a totally selfless guy," Roberts added. "Total team player all the way around."
Roberts said he first talked to Bennett right around the Ducks' 2013 Fiesta Bowl appearance. Those initial conversations were the first step in building a successful relationship.
From Eugene to Hammond
Bennett's transfer to Southeastern Louisiana meant a change in classes, a change in teammates and even a change in lifestyle.
Transitioning into a new program and university are the obvious challenges associated with a transfer. But Bennett said making the change from Oregon to SLU was seamless in that regard.
"I was kind of going back and forth at Oregon, whether I was going to stay or whether I was going to go," he explained. "I decided to take a trip out [to SLU]; [the semester] hadn’t started yet, so I could get out for the spring, not be behind in any classes and have a spring football with the team."
For a young man from California who spent three years in the Pacific Northwest, the more difficult aspect of transferring was acclimating to a new culture and pace of life.
Bennett said attending the Manning Passing Academy in nearby Thibodaux, on the campus of SLU's Southland Conference rival Nicholls State, gave him some familiarity with the area. But visiting for a few days and living so far from home are two different things.
So too are Hammond, Louisiana, location of Southeastern Louisiana University, and the West Coast locales Bennett had previously called home.
The US Census estimates Hammond's population in 2013 was 20,337. In contrast, the University of Oregon's undergraduate enrollment in the fall 2013 semester was 20,808, per the university's official website.
Fortunately for Bennett, he describes himself as someone who "can adapt wherever I go."
"It’s been a great learning experience and just a great experience in general," he said. "Getting to be in a different part of the country and a different culture and adapt to it; I’ve learned a lot from being down here."
While he was familiarizing himself with his new surroundings, Bennett found at least one immediate similarity to Oregon.
Both football programs favored an uptempo style of offense that allowed Bennett to do what he does best: make plays. And he'd have the chance to do so immediately.
"When it came time to transfer, I talked to different people," Bennett said. "I heard there’s a new coach at Southeastern, things are looking bright for the future and they need a quarterback."
That new head coach was Roberts, who is now preparing for his third season at helm. Roberts came to SLU from Delta State, a Division II powerhouse in his five years there.
Roberts' first team at SLU finished 5-6, a two-win improvement over the season prior. Add Bennett to fill that quarterback void, and the Lions' improvement from 2011 to 2012 paled in comparison to the jump they made in 2013.
"We thought we had a lot of talent going into the year," Roberts said. "The coaches, we thought we had the ability, maybe not to compete for the championship, but get into the playoffs."
Bennett saw a chance to take the wheel and help lead the Lions on that course. He applied lessons from his time as a Duck into his new role.
"At Oregon, there are a lot of great coaches…I had the chance to be around a lot of guys who went on to play at the next level. I got to kind of sit back while I was there and observe," he said.
Roberts saw that leadership quality in Bennett immediately.
"Really as soon as he got here, he took on that leadership role," Roberts said. "Because he's a guy who works really hard—he's a tough kid—he stepped immediately into that role, and the kids followed him."
Rewriting Record Books
For Bennett, transferring to SLU was an opportunity to play. For the Lions football program, his arrival proved downright historic.
Behind Bennett's 3,165 passing yards, 1,046 rushing yards and 37 combined touchdowns, the Lions didn't just improve. They flourished. SLU’s 11 wins in 2013 were the program’s most in a single season. Its Southland championship was the program's first league title since winning the Gulf States Conference in 1961.
Claiming the Southland crown meant beating Sam Houston State, the two-time FCS runner-up. And the Lions did it twice, the second time knocking the Bearkats out of the playoffs in a 30-29 thriller.
Bennett rushed for a game-high 83 yards with a touchdown and passed for 286 yards with another two scores. His second touchdown pass that December night was history-making.
|Bryan Bennett Career Statistics|
|Season||Team||GP||Comp./Att. (Pct.)||Pass Yards||Pass TD/INT||Carries||Rush Yards||Rush TD|
|LionSports.net and CFBStats.com|
Trailing 29-24 with 1:21 remaining with the ball on his own 15-yard line, Bennett found Tony McCrea for a gain of 11 yards. Then he hit Marquis Fruge' for 12 yards, Jeff Smiley for 21 and Fruge' again for another 15.
Four snaps, four passes and four completions. SLU moved into Sam Houston State territory in seconds and wasn't finished yet.
A 25-yard strike to Fruge' following his first and only incompletion of the drive set up Bennett and the Lions at the one-yard line. The last call of the drive was easy enough: Bennett to Smiley, touchdown SLU.
In 85 yards, 45 seconds, six completions and one touchdown, Bennett forever etched his name in SLU football history.
"For us, Bryan is a marquee player. He’s really helped elevate our program," Roberts said.
Yes, SLU is certainly elevated within the FCS ranks. A season ago they were projected to finish fourth by the sports information directors and fifth by the head coaches in the Southland. Now, the Lions open 2014 ranked No. 3 nationally in the both the Sports Network and Coaches Polls.
The only two teams ranked ahead of them are Eastern Washington and North Dakota State, which account for the last four national championships.
SLU football's rise in the past year is meteoric. Not bad for a program that restarted in 2003 after 16 years of dormancy.
"The only thing that’s different now is people know what we’re capable of. We’re going to have a target on our back," Bennett said. "We have a goal, and we want to achieve it. Just like last year: We had a goal [of winning the Southland championship], and we achieved it.
"But we didn't fully fulfill what we wanted to."
The goal to which Bennett alludes is a national championship.
"We have a lot more depth. We answered a lot of question areas we had, and we just have a lot more experience coming back," Roberts said. "We have guys who've won a [conference] championship and guys who've won in the playoffs."
As often comes with the territory of quarterbacking a championship-caliber team, Bennett is a contender for the game's top individual honor. In FCS, that's the Walter Payton Award.
Past winners include Dallas Cowboys star Tony Romo, Michigan slayer and current Chicago Bear Armanti Edwards and 2014 NFL draftee Jimmy Garoppolo.
Bennett said he embraces the pursuit of the award because of the implications it has for SLU football as a whole.
"I should be working to try and win that," he said. "You have those individual goals when you say, 'Yes, I want to be a Walter Payton Award winner,' and, 'Yes, I want to be an All-American.'
"I want to do that. But now I'm more focused on doing what I can to make me and my team better. If we do that, everything else should fall into place," he said
Improvement is a theme Bennett hit on frequently, and in pursuit of that goal, there's one critical element he emphasized both for himself and his team.
"Work our tails off."
It's a mantra that also applies both to SLU's championship aspirations and Bennett's own NFL stock.
From Playing at SLU to Playing on Sundays
Bennett said part of what made SLU attractive to him was it gave him "the best opportunity to try to play after college."
His performance there thus far has helped land Bennett on draft boards early into the 2015 evaluation process.
NFL.com's Mike Huguenin taps Bennett as a top small-school prospect.
Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, a 2015 NFL draft prospect in his own right, roomed with Bennett at last month's Manning Passing Academy.
Halliday marveled when discussing Bennett's arm strength last month at Pac-12 media days, comparing the SLU quarterback to one NFL playmaker.
"We lined up for skinny posts," Halliday said. "He threw the ball 84 yards. It was like seeing Michael Vick."
This year's Manning Passing Academy was Bennett's fourth, and he was very productive. His big arm indeed wowed others in attendance.
Bennett's offseason grind also included work with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia.
The process of cashing in on these efforts begins Aug. 30 for Bennett and the Lions, when they host Jacksonville University.
SLU's season opener is his first opportunity to show off the efforts he's made in the offseason within a game situation. And Bennett knows people will be watching.
"I know there are some things I need to work on. I know what [NFL scouts] are going to be looking for," he said.
Improved accuracy is one metric on which Bennett can improve. With fewer interceptions and a higher completion percentage, his draft stock should climb.
"Now I just need to take care of my team and the things I can do to better myself. I can't worry about, 'Oh, I need to to do this to make it to the league,'" he said. "I just have to do what I need to do to help my team wins games. If I do that, just like the awards, [the NFL draft] will take care of itself."
It may have required a detour, but the next exit on the horizon for Bennett is a lifelong dream.