Oregon transfer keys Lions’ playoff run
HAMMOND — A duffel bag supplied quarterback Bryan Bennett in the early days after transferring to Southeastern Louisiana.
Boarding a cross-country flight in January, packing light seemed optimal for the Oregon quarterback vetting a potential landing spot. Flat-out staying put didn’t figure into the calculus.
“I was just coming to take a look around,” Bennett said, “just see what it was about.”
Instead, after just three days and two weeks removed from the Ducks’ Fiesta Bowl victory, the California native ended his ad hoc recruitment: Tabbing a program more than 2,000 miles away from the slick gloss of Eugene, Ore., for a modest Football Championship Subdivision in a town of 20,000 people.
“He left everything in Oregon,” said Brian Bennett, the quarterback’s father. “I mean everything.”
Ten months later, the snap decision seems brilliant after his debut season with SLU (10-2), which hosts Sam Houston State (9-4) at 7 p.m. Saturday in the FCS playoffs, and vindication after nabbing the Southland Conference Player of Year Award.
“When I got here, a lot of people seemed to doubt it could work,” said Bennett, who amassed 3,544 yards of total offense and 32 touchdowns this season. “But I had faith in it, and my coaches had faith in it and the other guys here had faith in it. That’s all that matters.”
And it’s easy to be mired in the backstory, too.
In January 2012, Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas bolted early to the NFL, setting off an eight-month duel for succession between Bennett and Marcus Mariota. Ultimately, Mariota won out at the end of fall camp in the final week of August. Mulling a transfer, Bryan Bennett decided to forgo decamping after a meeting with former coach Chip Kelly.
“I was a leader on that team, and it was established with me a part of it,” Bryan Bennett said. “To just leave right before that season would have been tough. It’d have been hard for me to do, hard on the team, too.”
The calendar didn’t help, either.
“There wasn’t a lot of time to find somewhere,” Brian Bennett said. “He sacrificed another year of playing, but he stayed in Oregon. I think it was the right thing to do.”
But during the run up to the Fiesta Bowl, the familiar arc played out. Mariota, now a Heisman Trophy candidate, entrenched himself. To play, Bennett had to go. Seeing the field right away meant finding a home at the FCS level. Still, Bennett’s search process is still somewhat cloaked.
“I would like to know exactly what it was,” Brian Bennett said.
Thinly sketched out, it involved a call to a high school teammate and former UCLA tight end Joe Fauria. Bryan Bennett was passed along a name for Brian Sheppard, who had coached Fauria and was now the offensive coordinator at Indiana State. Turns out, Sheppard was a Lions backup quarterback for a lone season in 2003.
Back in southern California, Brian Bennett called Archie Manning, whose fabled passing camp where his son had served as a counselor. There’s this nice town called Hammond, and I’ve heard good things, Brian Bennett said of the advice.
And Lions coach Ron Roberts is terse, too, on the details.
“We got a tip and got in touch with him,” he said.
The visit itself was matter-of-fact. Roberts said he simply wanted to take measure of the quarterback. Sales pitch? Why did he need one?
“I’m not really ever trying to sell a kid on a change in environment,” Roberts said. “You’re looking for a kid where football is important and winning is important. If I had to sell him on the bells and whistles being different, then he’s not the kid I want.”
SLU’s offense also offered a potential boon.
At Oregon, Bryan Bennett ran a system out of the shotgun and pistol with a passing game predicated on quick throws on short routes. His mobility was an asset, but Lions offensive coordinator Greg Stevens wouldn’t type-cast him solely as a running quarterback.
“It was an opportunity to get a little more variety in my game,” Bennett said. “I could work more from under center, play-action pass and (use) drop-back passing concepts. We really have everything in the playbook, and I feel it’s moved me more toward what they’re doing in the NFL now.”
Picking up the concepts, terminology and cleaning up footwork and fundamentals, though, wasn’t the biggest issue.
“He really hadn’t played a lot in three years,” Stevens said. “So it was just getting back to being in the game, being the guy running the show.”
Four games was the length of the acclimation process, a start where he averaged just 162.3 yards passing and threw six interceptions. But since a 35-3 rout of Incarnate Word, Bryan Bennett is 120 of 193 passing for 1,961 yards and 17 touchdowns against a paltry three interceptions.
“We knew he had talent,” Stevens said. “Now he has consistency.”
“I just felt that and when vibed with the coaches,” Bryan Bennett said. “It was just natural.”
So it made sense, oddly, to leave Eugene everything — literally and figuratively — in Eugene. His mother drove 850 miles to pack his dorm room into a car. Enough belongings were shipped east to get him through until April, when his dad drove east to drop off the rest.
Pulling into Hammond that day, it was raining — just like it did so often in the Pacific Northwest.
The irony wasn’t lost on Brian Bennett, either.
“It’s just weird how things work out,” he said. “It’s just a good place.”