Another Kaepernick or Mariota? Bennett could be star of Senior Bowl

MOBILE, Ala. — Bryan Bennett already knows what it’s like to be a contingency plan for Marcus Mariota.

A number of years ago, the four-star recruit out of southern California (Granada Hills) signed with Oregon, in hopes of becoming the first transcendent quarterback of the Chip Kelly regime.

Bennett had good size (6-foot-3, 200-plus pounds), terrific speed, a strong throwing arm and a quick grasp of Kelly’s game-changing spread offense, similar traits to the other two prominent quarterbacks on the Ducks’ roster for the 2011 campaign — starter Darron Thomas and Mariota, a precocious freshman from Hawaii back then.

And in 2011, Bennett seemingly had the upper hand on succeeding Thomas as Oregon’s starter. A year later, though, the writing was on the proverbial wall, in favor of Mariota, prompting Bennett to transfer to another school — and in a different part of the country — as a means of reinventing himself on the fly.

In essence, perhaps Bennett (a two-year starter at Southeastern Louisiana; 2013 Southland Conference POY) and Mariota (two-year starter at Oregon, 2014 Heisman Trophy recipient) needed to be apart to realize their pro dreams.

With the NFL draft just three months away, both quarterbacks could be long-term success stories at the next level — if they wind up with the right franchise (and suitable offensive system).

Which brings us to this: Potential No. 1 overall picks in the draft typically don’t partake in the Senior Bowl, out of fear they can only hinder their stock. As such, there weren’t any high expectations that Mariota — who turned pro after the Ducks’ College Football Playoff title-game loss — would spend this week in Mobile.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop Tennessee Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt (doubling as the North coach for Saturday’s Senior Bowl) from holding a spot open for Mariota (who’s Senior Bowl-eligible, due to an early graduation) … just in case he felt like joining college football’s most celebrated all-star game.

Although reportedly tempted, Mariota never accepted the Senior Bowl invite. That allowed Sean Mannion (Oregon State), Shane Carden (East Carolina) and Bryce Petty (Baylor) to maintain their spots on the North squad.

But what about Bennett, who accounted for 4,211 total yards (1,046 rushing) and 37 TDs in 2013 and 33 total TDs during an injury-shortened 2014? How would he get the chance to boost his own stock this week?

Enter a simple twist of fate from Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, who switched to cornerback (his full-time focus leading up to the draft) for Senior Bowl Week. That left the door open for Bennett to join Blake Sims (Alabama) and Garrett Grayson (Colorodo State) on the South squad.

"I just want to take the opportunity I’ve been given and make the most of it," said Bennett, who arrived to Mobile on Wednesday in time to answer countless questions about Mariota, Chip Kelly and San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick (virtual sports clone).

"It’s (all about) putting quality tape out there."

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The Senior Bowl may be a tent-pole event on the NFL calendar, but it doesn’t have all the accoutrements of a regular-season game.

Take the practice squad, for example. From September to December, all 32 teams have direct access to 10 players from their own developmental depth chart. But for Senior Bowl Week, the rosters are set in stone — barring injury or an unforeseen event that changes the composition of competition (like Nick Marshall moving to safety … or Mariota staying away from Mobile).

To start the week, there were no ready-for-action fill-ins here in Mobile. Just contingency plans written on a piece of paper in event organizer Phil Savage’s notebook. Some guys eventually get that call … while others sit by a phone that never rings.

Bennett — the 15th-ranked quarterback in the 2010 recruiting class (source: Rivals.com), 29 spots ahead of Blake Bortles (No. 3 overall pick in 2013 draft) — certainly got the call from Savage, albeit in the middle of the week.

And though it wasn’t a grand surprise, it certainly frazzled the quarterback — from an equipment-preparation standpoint.

"First of all, thanks to (SE Louisiana head coach Ron Roberts) for getting my stuff out here," said Bennett, who didn’t have his shoulder pads on the red-eye flight into the Mobile area. "It took a lot to get here, but the excitement of everything kind of trumped (all the other stuff)."

Bennett has contracted former NFL quarterback Jordan Palmer (the brother of Carson Palmer) to help clean up all the glitches in his pre-draft profile, in terms of developing a more efficient throwing motion, improving footwork when fielding snaps under center (five- and seven-step drops) or mastering the art of staying humble — avoiding the many "like" comparisons to Mariota and/or Kaepernick.

"He’s doing a great job (in San Francisco)," said Bennett, adroitly sidestepping a question about whether Kaepernick’s success after four NFL seasons (8,415 yards passing, 60 total TDs, one NFC championship) should motivate franchises to boost Bennett’s draft stock in the coming weeks.

Bennett also provided pleasant, but non-specific responses to whether his work at Southeastern Louisiana could translate to NFL success, if the Kelly-coached Philadelphia Eagles snagged him in the draft.

"Yeah, we did a lot of no-huddle … maybe not as fast as Oregon, though."

* * *

When perusing the list of history’s legendary sports alternates (in this scenario, the Miss America runner-up who replaced Denise Williams, circa 1983, need not apply), two men stand above the pack: Lou Gehrig and John Daly.

In 1925, Gehrig famously replaced first baseman Wally Pipp in the New York Yankees lineup, on a day when Pipp apparently had a headache and was advised to take the day off.

Well, 2,130 consecutive games/starts later … Gehrig (493 HRs, 1,995 RBI, lifetime .340 batting average/.447 on-base percentage) had clinched a spot in the baseball Hall of Fame, leaving Pipp to quip about his headache-based fate, "I took the two most expensive aspirin in history."

It could easily be argued that Gehrig — a vital cog in the famed Murderer’s Row lineup of 1927 — would have found his way into the Yankees batting order, sooner than later. With or without Pipp, who was batting just .244 with three homers at the time of his benching.

But there’s no guarantee Daly would have conquered golfing fame and fortune if Nick Price — winner of multiple major titles — hadn’t missed the 1991 PGA Championship in Carmel, Ind, due to the impending birth of a child.

Heading into that tourney, the 25-year-old Daly had never won a professional event in three-plus seasons. He was also the ninth alternate for Crooked Stick, meaning that eight other golfers — in addition to Price — had to remove themselves from the year’s final major, before Round 1.

Accepting the last-minute invite, Daly drove to Indiana and joined the tournament, without a single practice round at Crooked Stick. On Day 1, he carded a respectable 69 (3-under).

For the final three days, the hard-swinging/hard-partying Daly brought the course to its proverbial knees, finishing at 12-under and cruising to perhaps the most unlikely majors victory in golf history.

The final round on that Sunday was essentially a four-hour coronation/infomercial for Daly, whose unheralded story would titillate a televised nation of golf fans — many of whom would soon go anywhere to catch a glimpse of the long-driving wizard with the soft putting touch.

Thanks to Nick Price, in effect, Daly presides over a world-renowned brand that includes two major championships and millions of dollars in the bank.

Back to the Senior Bowl: It’s unlikely that Bennett, Mississippi State offensive tackle Blaine Clausell or UCF linebacker Terrance Plummer — the three mid-week additions to the all-star game — will become instant household names if either one captures MVP honors on Saturday. (No pure O-lineman has ever claimed the award in Senior Bowl lore.)

But Bennett certainly has a shot to become a favorite in GM/personnel circles … even if none of ’em professes that admiration until after the draft.

Yes, John Daly unwittingly received the greatest of gifts from Price 23-plus years ago.

Now, in absentia, Marcus Mariota might have done the same for a former Oregon teammate.