TAMPA — They take their mascots seriously in southeast Georgia, be it panthers, pirates or pitchers of syrup.
Already the quarterback for Cairo High's Syrupmakers during his senior year, Steven Bench never had the time for the job. But boy, did he have the voice. Grits aren't as distinctly Southern as this 19-year-old's thick, sorghum drawl.
"You have to try out and be the pitcher," Bench says. "It's not a joke up there man, it's as serious as it gets."
Cairo's pitcher — not to mention its passer — worked overtime in 2011.
Behind Bench, a transfer from nearby Bainbridge, the Syrupmakers (15-1) rolled to the AAA state semifinals. Bench, who played his first organized contest in the Georgia Dome as a 9-year-old, came one game from ending his prep career at the same venue.
Two autumns later, Bench — who took the scenic route from south Georgia to South Florida — is preparing for his inaugural start for USF. To many, there's no syrup-coating it: The only child of Steven and Glennie Bench is the winless Bulls' best option against 15th-ranked Miami.
"He can make some things happen when they're not there," Bulls coach Willie Taggart said Tuesday. "When you get a pass rush he can make some guys miss and allow you to keep some things going."
That moxie and mobility were on display in teasing spurts two Saturdays ago. Buoyed by Marcus Shaw's effective running, Bench directed two scoring drives — and nearly a third — in the first three possessions of his extended relief appearance against FAU.
In the second half, he completed 6 of 15 passes, was sacked twice (fumbling on one) and threw an interception that was returned 75 yards for a touchdown in a 28-10 defeat. But in the eyes of many, the flubs were trumped by the flashes of promise.
And if genes and GPA mean anything, the 6-foot-2 sophomore will master Taggart's complex system sooner rather than later.
"I've studied and am still studying and watching film and getting better and better every day," Bench said during the Bulls' bye week. "That's my goal, and (the game) will slow down as it slows down."
Though hardly a five-star prospect, Steven Eugene Bench was an honor student in the classroom (3.86 GPA) and film room at Cairo and Bainbridge, where he spent his first three years of high school.
Steven Lindale Bench, an FSU alumnus who had been a prep coach since the polyester era, recalls his son joining him for wee-hour postgame film sessions in the Bainbridge High fieldhouse.
"We'd go over that night's game not regarding what he did, because I was not his position coach and I'm glad I wasn't," said the elder Bench, eliciting his own Deep South staccato rich as peach cobbler.
"He was always interested not about just following the ball but in all the other stuff — what was going on up front, what was going on defensively, all those other things."
That intellectual curiosity coalesced with natural athleticism.
By age 12, he was starring on a travel baseball team that won some regional Dizzy Dean Baseball tournaments, and ultimately evolved into a solid high school pitcher with a heater that hit the mid 80s. Eager to find any way on the football field as a Bainbridge ninth-grader, he became the team's long snapper.
He even played a year of prep hoops. "He's a nice athlete," the elder Bench said. "I'm a bragging daddy now, but he's a heck of a baseball player."
Problem was, he wasn't getting much chance to show his velocity for Bainbridge's football team, which employed a split-back veer. Ever see Remember the Titans, the younger Bench asks rhetorically: That was the Bearcats' offense.
"I wouldn't say we didn't throw at all," he added. "But two or three times (a game) wasn't unusual, that was about it."
When his dad got an assistant's job at Cairo before the 2011 season, Steven followed in a de facto package deal. The Syrupmakers ran more of a pro style, and the younger Bench flourished (1,200 passing yards, 11 TDs, nine rushing TDs).
"It couldn't have worked out any better," the elder Bench said, "except not going to the (state) finals."
Next thing the son knew, he had evolved from a blip to a bona fide prospect on new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien's radar. In the winter of 2012, he reticently flipped his commitment from Rice to the Nittany Lions, making a two-game cameo as a freshman that fall.
"Steven's a bright kid," O'Brien told the Harrisburg Patriot-News at the time. "He's a very, very smart kid."
Yet at the end of the following spring, O'Brien told Bench he likely was headed for a backup role. In May, after USF completed spring drills, he joined the Bulls. Bench immediately was eligible due to the well-chronicled NCAA sanctions against Penn State.
He has been cramming ever since, getting up to speed on the nuances of Taggart's scheme. Bench's experience with O'Brien's system — based on the New England Patriots offense — has helped. So has his own gym-rat mentality.
"I see him over here trying to learn it, and I think that's a big reason why he's where he's at with our offense," Taggart said.
"He's a little ahead of where a normal freshman would be at this time because he's put in the work to learn it. But by no means is he where we need for him to be, and none of them are. … But I think he knows it well enough to be effective and help our offense go."
Just how well he knows it should be revealed quickly on Saturday. Miami (3-0) defends the pass well (fourth nationally in pass-efficiency defense) and harasses the passer even better (11 sacks in three games).
Could be this Syrupmaker's stickiest situation yet.
"We don't need him to be Tom Brady," Taggart said. "We just want him to be Steven Bench."
Joey Knight can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3350. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Bulls.