ATLANTA - Taylor Bennett spent most of his high school career on the bench.
Once he got to Georgia Tech, his chance to play came a lot quicker.
The redshirt freshman filled in last week for the 15th-ranked Yellow Jackets, getting his first start at quarterback after Reggie Ball became ill with viral meningitis. Bennett didn't make any major gaffes in a 28-13 victory over Connecticut.
With Ball still recovering, Bennett may have to go again Saturday - and this time the stakes would be infinitely higher. The Yellow Jackets go on the road to meet fourth-ranked Virginia Tech, one of their biggest games in years.
The winner gets an early jump on a spot in the first Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. Not that one could tell from Bennett's laid-back approach.
"It's just another game, really," he said with a shrug. "In college football, every game is a playoff game. There's no playoffs at the end, so every game matters."
Ball, who was hospitalized for two days, returned to practice on Tuesday but didn't do any strenuous work. Coach Chan Gailey said the junior's chances of playing were only 50-50, and there's a good chance he won't be strong enough to make it through a whole game even if he does play.
Which brings us back to Bennett, an unlikely player for such a big stage.
Going into his senior year at Lafayette High School in St. Louis, Bennett wasn't even on the radar screen for college recruiters. Why would have been? No one had really seen him play, since he spent three years on the bench, backing up a kid named Josh Mathews.
Bennett made the best of the situation and never considered trying to move to another high school.
"I just wanted to stick it out," he said. "It's good to sit back behind somebody. (Mathews) was a really good quarterback in high school. I sat three years behind him. It's a learning experience, and it's kind of what I'm doing here with Reggie."
When Mathews finally moved on to Northwest Missouri State, a Division II college, Bennett got his chance.
He had spurred some interest that summer by attending a couple of football camps, but no one started recruiting him heavily until he had played a few games. Georgia Tech took note of the left-hander about halfway through his final season at Lafayette.
"It's unusual for a guy not to play except for his senior year," Gailey said. "No one really knew about him. I think we maybe found out sometime in October or November that year. It came right down to the end. We had to evaluate him based on six or seven games his senior year."
Bennett didn't have a huge season, throwing for just over 1,000 yards, but it was enough to get offers from Georgia Tech, Boise State and Baylor. He strongly considered Boise State, where his best friend decided to go, but wound up picking the Yellow Jackets.
"Even though we had not spent a lot of time with him, we could see his character," Gailey said. "I felt his desire to want to be a great quarterback. He was looking for somewhere that would help him reach that goal."
Bennett got a head start on his college career, graduating early from high school, enrolling at Georgia Tech and going through spring drills last year. He didn't get any playing time in 2004, but came into this season as Ball's backup.
And, just three games into his first official season, Bennett got his chance.
Ball became ill late last week and things got worse after the team checked into a local hotel, as it always does the night before a home game. Bennett, who rooms with Ball, knew something was wrong as his friend complained of headaches and dehydration. The following morning, Ball was taken to the hospital.
Still, Bennett didn't know he would start until about two hours before the game. In a way, that was a blessing. Not even his family and friends, who had come down from St. Louis, knew he would start until he trotted on the field the first time.
"I didn't have time to get nervous," he said. "I went through the game plan in my head. I wasn't really thinking about it being my first start. It was exciting, especially after the first play."
Coming out after UConn had grabbed a quick 3-0 lead, Bennett's first play gave him the option to hand off or throw, depending on the defense. He surveyed the other side of the line, checked into a pass and made a quick throw to Calvin Johnson near the left sideline. Johnson broke back toward the middle of the field and took it 42 yards for a touchdown.
"Very overwhelming," Bennett said.
He didn't do much the rest of the game, completing only 11-of-30 for 142 yards, getting sacked twice and managing only 1 yard rushing. But the coaches were impressed with his command of the offense and, most important, the lack of any turnovers.
"It's a great attribute for a quarterback not to lose the game," quarterback coach Patrick Nix said. "He didn't mess up any handoffs. He didn't make any bad decisions. He didn't cause any false starts or offsides penalties. He managed the game the way we wanted him to.
"Some people might say that's trivial stuff," Nix went on, "but I can assure you there's plenty of quarterbacks, from the NFL down to peewee, who would mess things up in that situation."
So, while Mathews is expected to be a backup Saturday when Northwest Missouri State meets Missouri Southern, Bennett could be the starter in one of the biggest college football games of the season.
Funny how things worked out.
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