Ex-Oregon QB Bennett Gets a Shot

John David Mercer / USA Today

John David Mercer / USA Today

MOBILE, Ala. — As Bryan Bennett stood on the field after practice preparing to answer another reporter’s question, a Senior Bowl official walked by and tapped him on the shoulder.

“You don’t want to get left behind,” he advised

Bennett (6-2, 210) was the last player standing. The others had exited to change, shower and head to their next scheduled event.

Bennett, however, was soaking it all in. He signed some autographs for local kids who probably didn’t even know who he was. But they saw the yellow Senior Bowl quarterback jersey and figured: Why not?

Then it was time for an NFL Network interview with reporter Alex Flanagan. Telling his story on national TV was certainly not something Bennett could have expected just 24 hours earlier.

On Tuesday, he was in southern California training with Jordan Palmer. Bennett was not originally asked to participate in the Senior Bowl, but Marcus Mariota declined an invitation, and Auburn’s Nick Marshall was moved to cornerback, so he ended up getting the call.

Bennett left San Diego at 10:30 Tuesday night and landed in Mobile around 8:30 Wednesday morning.

“I was just so excited to be here,” he said. “Being tired, I didn’t even feel it.”

The Bennett story has long been about waiting for an opportunity. He was recruited by Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich at Oregon and red-shirted in 2010. The next season, Darron Thomas became the starter, although Bennett saw some action, completing 25 of 46 passes for 369 yards and six touchdowns. He also ran 23 times for 200 yards.

2012 was supposed to be Bennett’s time. He and Mariota competed for the starting job, but the future Heisman winner ended up beating him out in late August.

“Obviously I wanted to win the spot,” Bennett said. “I’m a competitor. Nobody who’s competing wants to lose. My thought was really just: What can I do to find myself on the field now?”

The answer was: not much.

Bennett got in during blowouts and completed 20 of 37 passes for 211 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. He considered transferring after losing out to Mariota, but Kelly convinced him to stay.

“At first, we just talked about where we were, and there’s situations that could happen to where it may not have been set in stone obviously,” Bennett said. “Marcus stayed healthy, did well, but at the time, you had to look at both sides of the spectrum to see what could come and continue to battle. And I did do that for a little while and then felt like I needed to go get an opportunity to play somewhere else.”

On Jan. 16, 2013, the Eagles officially hired Kelly. Six days later, Bennett announced he was transferring to Southeast Louisiana.

Did Kelly’s decision affect Bennett’s?

“A little bit,” he said. “At the time, I was actually deciding to stay. …I had left when he left. He had left to Philly, and I had left a few days later.”

Looking for an opportunity to play, Bennett landed in another corner of the country.

“His biggest thing, he’s all about football,” said Southeastern Louisiana head coach Ron Roberts, who made the 2.5-hour drive to Mobile Wednesday to make sure Bennett had shoulder pads for practice. “Bryan’s whole thing in making the decision to transfer from Oregon was he just wanted to get on the field and have a chance to play and prove himself that he could play the quarterback position at a high level. And he obviously left one of the premiere programs in the country to get on the field and play and did a tremendous job for us and lifted our program to a whole new level.”

As for what Bennett can prove this week, Roberts added: “I’m hoping they’re gonna get a first-hand look of how he commands himself on the field and his leadership ability and his mental toughness. I don’t think those are things you can get on film. You kind of need to see how he is. And being around him, I think they’ll also find out how hard he works. Those are all obviously things that are gonna determine whether you’re successful in the NFL.”

In his first year as a starter, Bennett completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 3,165 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He is an excellent athlete and a dual-threat option, having piled up 1,046 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground that season.

2014 was a disappointment as he battled injuries and completed just 49.5 percent of his passes for 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He still scored 15 rushing touchdowns and piled up 669 yards on the ground.

Roberts said there were “a lot” of similarities between what Oregon did and what Southeastern Louisiana did with Bennett.

“We do a little bit more pro stuff, get under center, those things he has done,” he said. “Play-action pass, the I-formation, we do a little of that. We did do the spread. We did a lot more with him obviously because of his ability, his talent.”

Bennett still has Oregon/Philadelphia connections. He’s close with Josh Huff and had a brief moment to say hi to Kelly before practice started. He’d “absolutely” love a chance to reunite with his former coach, but really is just looking for an opportunity anywhere.

The road onto an NFL roster is still steep, but in a year that features an unimpressive class of quarterbacks, Bennett has gotten all he’s ever wanted: a shot.

“On a plane all night long, running here and there and trying to get everything in order last minute,” Bennett said. “But the excitement of being able to get the opportunity to come kind of trumped all that other stuff.”

He’ll finally get a chance to catch his breath Wednesday night and then will have another opportunity to make an impression on the field.

Below are some YouTube videos of Bennett in action.