Bryan Bennett Used to Mariota's Shadow, but QB Could Be Ready for Own Spotlight

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 25, 2015

David J. Phillip/AP Images

It's a Tuesday morning in February, and NFL draft prospect Bryan Bennett is at the zoo. No particular reason, he says. A friend's visiting and—as usualit's a nice sunny day in San Diego, not far from where he's been training to make a run at one of the most sought-after and exclusive jobs in America. 

In less than 10 weeks, the 22-year-old Southern California kid will become an NFL quarterback. Between now and then, he'll be poked and prodded at various auditions to determine whether he'll be drafted (and if so, when) or signed as an undrafted free agent. 

Barring a tremendous turn of events, Bennett will sign somewhere this spring, immediately gaining an opportunity to compete for a regular NFL quarterbacking gig. He probably assured himself of that chance with a strong performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, which just wrapped up on Monday. 

A lot lies ahead, but this is a sliver-sized break in the schedule as Bennett continues one of the wildest rides of his life. He graduated from college already, so his focus now is only on those upcoming auditions and the draft, which takes place April 30-May 2 in Chicago. 

For the moment, he's at least partially focused on zebras and giraffes. Certainly, though, he's taking some time to reflect on his journey—the one that started about a decade-and-a-half ago about 150 miles north in his hometown of Granada Hills, Calif. 

"This is gonna be our next Elway."

That's how it all started for Bennett, who told me he overheard half-whimsical lines like those while playing Pop Warner football in a community buried amid a slew of suburban Los Angeles neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley. 

Granada Hills might only be on the map because Elway put it there. That's where the Hall of Fame quarterback played his high school football, and it's where Bennett learned the game—right around the same time Elway was cementing his legacy with back-to-back Super Bowl victories to finish his career with the Denver Broncos. 

"I remember being a kid and chucking the ball down the field in Pop Warner," said Bennett of what evoked the Elway comparisons. "So ever since I was little it was a goal of mine to be a successful quarterback."

Since then, Bennett's path has taken him slightly south to a high school in the L.A. neighborhood of Encino, all the way up the coast to Eugene, Ore., two time zones over to Hammond, La. (pop. 20,000) and now back to SoCal, where he awaits word on his next stop. 

"He plays quarterback like a linebacker."

That's how Eric Banducci, who coached Bennett while also serving as his counselor at Crespi Carmelite High School, summed up the kid's play, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that he was, in fact, a linebacker when he arrived there. 

"He was so athletic," Banducci told me, "such a good football player that he could literally play every position other than maybe the interior line on offense and defense."

And he did. 

At Crespi, it became apparent Bennett was, like, a nine-trick pony. As a freshman, he started at outside linebacker, but he also played safety and cornerback while returning kicks and serving as the team's punter. Banducci, who coached the defensive line at the time, wanted him as an edge-rusher. He also believes he could have suited up as a receiver, a tight end or a running back. 

Not yet mentioned: quarterback. That's because Banducci recalls that Bennett broke in with six other pivots and failed to stand out. The coaching staff had him buried in the fourth or fifth spot on the depth chart, which was topped by eventual UCLA starter Kevin Prince. 

But Bennett climbed the quarterback ladder while shining elsewhere as a freshman and entered his sophomore year as Prince's backup. Six plays into that season, though, Prince tore his ACL and the 15-year-old Bennett was suddenly a raw starting pivot while continuing to start on defense. 

But with help from a 6'8", All-State, monster of a tight end named Joseph Fauria (the same freakish touchdown machine who currently plays for the Detroit Lions), Bennett led the Celts to the Division 1 Pac-5 CIF championship. 

"He got the entire team to believe in him," said Banducci, who doesn't think he's coached anyone with Bennett's athleticism, but at the time realized there was more to the kid. "We knew he was special at that point."

Bennett built on that by ramping up his training regimen while also becoming a top-notch student. 

"If you asked our faculty, he'd end up being probably their favorite student for his junior and senior year," said Banducci, "which is rare."

Two years later, he graduated as a 4-star recruit and was ranked by Scout.com as the No. 10 quarterback in the country, precipitating a career- and life-altering experience at the University of Oregon. 

"It didn't come out how I wanted it to but it was a good experience for me."

Bennett threw only 83 passes as a member of the Oregon Ducks. He redshirted in 2010, backed up Darron Thomas in 2011 and then lost a battle for Thomas' vacated starting spot in 2012. 

But if you're going to lose a quarterback competition in college, it may as well be to an eventual Heisman Trophy winner. See, we could have been talking about Bryan Bennett in a significantly different light right now had he been just a little better in the summer of 2012, when then-Oregon head coach Chip Kelly and his staff named Marcus Mariota the starter. 

But for Bennett, in a slightly twisted homage to Friedrich Nietzsche, it had to be a that-which-does-not-kill-me-makes-me-stronger experience. 

"It didn't come out how I wanted it to but it was a good experience for me," he said. "Just to be in that situation where you've got two high-level quarterbacks competing to win a job, it's something that has kind of pushed me.

"That was something that I really wanted and I didn't get it, and it kind of forced me in a different direction and helped shape me into what I am today. Now I have that experience, so when it happens again I think I'll have a little bit of preparation."

Fortunately for Bennett, he still had the chance to put together some decent performances at the tail end of blowouts in those first two years, even starting in place of the injured Thomas once.

Throw in his high school credentials, and he brought enough to the table to earn a starting job at Division 1 (FCS) Southeastern Louisiana in 2013. 

"He may have hit only 49 percent, but he was hitting them for big."

Bennett flourished during his two years at Southeastern Louisiana, albeit against weaker competition and on a much smaller stage.

There are some major differences between Oregon and Southeastern Louisiana. One program is a perennial BCS contender with a national following, a celebrity head coach and a 54,000-seat stadium. The other has had only one of its alumni drafted in the last 30 years and plays in a stadium with a capacity of 7,408. 

Still, this is Division I football and Bennett earned Southland Conference Player of the Year honors while leading the Lions to a No. 6 ranking to finish the 2013 season. Archie Manning had apparently played a role in Bennett's decision to head out there after he attended the Manning Passing Academy in 2011, and now the 6'3", 215-pound mega-athlete was cutting Tangipahoa Parish grass for side money while tearing it up just enough to earn fresh looks from NFL scouts. 

If there was one major concern coming out of his final season with the Lions, it had to do with that completion percentage of 49.5, which sadly jumps off the page when surveying his numbers. 

That particular number, though, is quite deceiving, since Southeastern Louisiana was the fence-swinging Vladimir Guerrero of FCS football. In fact, the Lions led the nation in yards per pass completion. 

"He could have thrown hitch routes all day and probably complete 70 percent of his passes," Lions head coach Ron Roberts told me. "He may have hit only 49 percent, but he was hitting them for big."

The pro-style Southeastern Louisiana offense allowed Bennett the opportunity to do everything you see in the big leagues. He checked protections and route concepts, he worked out of shotgun and under center and he frequently made big-boy throws. A lot of seven- or eight-man protections, a lot of four-vertical passing concepts. 

As Bennett noted, it was high-risk, high-reward.  

"We definitely took a lot of shots," he said. "I know there's been the accuracy question, but I know I can deliver accurate footballs."

"When he runs the football, it's like damn!"

Bennett's stellar two-year run at Southeastern Louisiana granted him opportunities to go toe-to-toe with BCS-level Division I peers at the Senior Bowl, as well as big names like the highly touted Jameis Winston and his former teammate, Mariota, at the combine.

That's where he caught the eye of Bleacher Report analyst and former NFL quarterback Chris Simms, who raved about Bennett over the weekend.

"I don't think it matters what the ball is or where it is," said Simms when I spoke with him this week, "he's comfortable throwing it. He doesn't have to think about his drop, you could tell he was unfazed by the moment of the combine. Every throw he made I thought was very good except for maybe one."

After watching additional tape, Simms also came away impressed with Bennett's ability to run, noting that he plays a lot faster than his 4.81 time in the 40-yard dash. That's no surprise considering he ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2013 and accumulated more than 650 rushing yards on 46 fewer carries the following season. 

And while there's no way to measure toughness, especially at an event like the combine, the tape told Simms a similar story to the one Banducci told me from way back in those high school days. 

"When he runs the football, it's like damn!" said Simms. "He ducks his head and he tries to run over everybody. You can tell he has a toughness to him."

Not only does Simms think the kid could become the first Southeastern Louisiana quarterback ever to be drafted, but he believes Bennett could be a mid-round pick. 

"I'm a football player and that's what I want to do."

That brings us back to the San Diego Zoo, an easy day trip for Bennett as he works out with quarterback guru Jordan Palmer at a draft training center in nearby Carlsbad. 

Tigers and stripes, leopards and spots, quarterbacks and snaps. Something like that. 

Bennett may have grown up wanting to be his hometown's next John Elway, but the reality is, his greatest asset might be his ability to transform from quarterback to fill-in-the-blank. 

They have chameleons there too. I checked

While Roberts noted that his former star player is "better with the ball in his hands," he conceded that Bennett would probably be capable of converting to safety at the NFL level. 

It seems as though Bennett would be willing, especially if it meant that was the best way to keep his dream alive. 

"At Oregon they told me I wasn't going to start and I asked them how I can get on the field," he said. "I'm a football player and that's what I want to do. Quarterback is obviously my No. 1 priority and that's what I'm putting all my focus into right now, but if it came down to a situation where I was asked to do something different, I would definitely be open-minded to it."

Simms doesn't see it happening, noting that quarterback converts just haven't panned out. 

"There's just not too many recipes out there that show that has worked and had success in the NFL," he said. "I think they'll value it more from the standpoint of knowing, 'Hey, this kid's a football player.'" 

That's what it comes down to. This is the kid who started at corner and on special teams in high school, took a punt return to the house during a practice at Oregon and plays quarterback like a linebacker. 

That could be his ticket, even if he remains a quarterback. 

Certainly he'll wonder where he'd be right now had he beat out Mariota in 2012. And ironically, it might still be Carlsbad, because that's also where the Heisman winner and potential No. 1 overall pick is training. 

According to Bennett, the two are buddies who hang out from time to time. Technically, they're once again competing against each other. But thanks in part to that original competition, there might be room for both in the NFL. 

We might be talking about two different animals. 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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