Coach's kid has head start

Steven Bench's father would smile when his short-haired son would uncover one of his Sharpies and start doodling blobs on paper.

That smile would widen when the son would hand those drawings back to his father, an assistant football coach, with a demand attached. No, a 6-year-old Bench didn't want them posted under magnets on the fridge. And, no, they weren't of fire-breathing dragons or whatever children who won't be confused with Monet might draw.

They were plays -- with seven blobs on the line of scrimmage, and another four blobs behind them. Trips right, I-formation -- Bench had drawn seven or eight. He didn't know the formations' names, but he knew, from watching his football-coaching father, all about the gridiron.

And, the young Bench prodded, he knew those plays didn't belong in the kitchen.

"Daddy," the elder Bench remembered him saying, "give these to Coach."

"He was just a little kid, a coach's kid, 6 or maybe 7 years old," Bench's father, Steve, continued. "He'd just draw where the guys were supposed to go. It was just basic stuff -- but I mean, shoot, some of our seniors still can't figure that out."

Bench, PSU's most-experienced quarterback, is 12 years removed now from those plays and those pictures. But talk to Matt McGloin, coaches and anyone who knows Bench, and they'll sum up the Southerner's penchant for quick learning in just a few words: He's a coach's kid.

In high school, during summers under the baking South Georgia sun, the signal-caller would sometimes practice entire days without throwing a pass. At Bainbridge High School, home to an option-style offense, Bench was expected to make quick decisions -- but not many throws. He followed his father, an offensive line coach, and transferred to pass-heavy Cairo (Ga.) High School his senior year.

He stepped on the field, inside the "Syrup City," without an inkling of the offense or without his teammates knowing his name. But the Syrupmakers' head coach, Tom Fallaw, said Bench didn't take long to catch on.

"He learned a good system in a hurry. He got here in May, but he knew what we were doing by July -- and he took control of the team and the huddle," Fallaw said. "You know, he's been around football his whole life, so it didn't surprise me. He's a coach's kid."

O'Brien, Penn State's head coach, and other observers have said the quarterback race this spring is a close one. Tyler Ferguson, the junior college quarterback from California, is Bench's main competition until ESPN's top-rated passer, Christian Hackenberg, arrives on campus in June.

It's an event that will be much like watching a NASCAR race that lasts 21 more weeks: Fans and media won't see a lot of what happens behind the scenes, or who might gain an edge on the final lap. But, with some game experience and a few extra months to learn the playbook, Bench is the one with the head start.

"Well, yeah, he should have a head start over the other guys because he's been here," McGloin said. "He has a long way to go, but he's made a lot of strides.

"As a young quarterback, you expect him to be a little timid and afraid to step on guys' toes, but he does things you don't expect a younger guy to do. He's got a good grasp of the playbook, and his greatest quality is his leadership."

Bench's father wasn't a heavy sleeper in his coaching days. (He finished his high school career when his son finished his.) So, on many restless nights, he'd drive to the Bainbridge field house, past tree-lined highways, to watch some film. Whenever Steven heard him stir, he'd beg to accompany him. His dad never had the heart to tell the 12-year-old boy who couldn't get enough of his mother's spaghetti to hop back to bed or just watch TV.

The elder Bench would pull up a chair for his son, flip on a whirring projector and scribble notes. Steven didn't sit there, his chin resting on his hands, and complain about going home. He'd hunch forward, point to the screen and pepper his father with questions: Why'd he do that? What happened there? Where's he going?

"Those were some of my favorite times; I just loved it," Bench's father said. "And so did he. That continued right on through high school. But, again, that's why coaches' sons just get it. They hear a lot of stuff, like how this guy was supposed to block there, and they just piece it all together."

Steven would giggle wildly as a toddler when he'd roll around on the football field beside his father. He literally grew up on that football field, and Penn State players said they could tell. He might be somewhat new to the intricacies of the passing game, but he's not new to the game. He was a coach's son.

Cornerback Stephon Morris didn't hesitate when asked what stood out about the clean-shaven kid with the syrupy drawl. Like McGloin, he used words like "leader" and "competitor." During one practice last season, Bench took off running on a broken play -- but he didn't jog out of bounds once he picked up a small gain.

Practice or not, scoreboard or no, Bench was sprinting for as many yards as he could. And when a defensive back cut him off, Bench lowered his shoulder and attempted to plow him over.

"Everyone was like, 'Whoa, he's crazy!' " Morris said with a laugh. "But you want to see that in your quarterback because that definitely lifts the team's spirits, seeing he's willing to give his body up like that.

"He doesn't remind me of any other Penn State quarterback, but I can see some similarities between him and Tim Tebow, just because he's a competitor."

Bench's father knows some people are discounting his son already because of Hackenberg, the four-star commit who will start his PSU career on June 22. He doesn't mind much; he said Steven doesn't either. But when the kid who threw a mid-80s fastball approached his parents last season, he vowed he would slide up the depth chart to backup.

After spending just one season in a high school passing offense and then less than three months in Happy Valley, O'Brien drew up the depth chart with him ahead of Paul Jones, a heralded recruit who was on his third season.

"He told his mother and I that from the start," the elder Bench said. "Now that's a kid feeling good about himself, but dadgum if he didn't make it happen. That's the thing about Steven -- so I never underestimate the guy. I don't care how outlandish it is."

And, this spring, he told his parents he's going to start. Fallaw wouldn't be surprised either. Most people who know Bench wouldn't be.

After all, he's a coach's kid.