TAMPA — This comfort zone contains no dehumidifier. On a muggy, partly cloudy August morning, sweat was a salty adhesive sticking the jerseys of Steven Bench and Mike White to their unpadded torsos.
Still, a sauna beats a maze any day of the week. Unlike last summer, USF's dueling quarterbacks finally know their way around.
"There's such a huge difference between doing something for the first time and doing something for the thousandth time," Bench said after the Bulls' inaugural preseason workout Monday. "Last year I'd go into a game and would have run that play two or three times my entire life. And now, it's turning into second nature."
A year after being tossed into the huddle out of necessity and, perhaps, desperation, Bench and White enter their friendly QB derby with camaraderie, confidence and — most significantly — a clue. Being armed for the task never was an issue for either.
Being armed and ready was. A season of lumps and offseason of reps has changed all that.
"Last year was more like, 'All right, Coach, what do I have on this play?' " White said. "And it's turning into, 'Coach, it's this coverage and I promise I will be open,' and little stuff like that, knowing the coverage rather than focusing on the play. We know the play second nature and now we just get to go play football."
Bench (a junior) and White (a sophomore) were USF's third and fourth quarterbacks, respectively, to start a game during last season's 2-10 debacle. In both cases, coach Willie Taggart was seeking a spark, which is exactly what he got.
A flicker of promise here, an ember of hope there, but nothing that lit a steady fire under the Bulls.
A Penn State transfer who didn't participate in the spring of 2013, Bench (26-for-64, 392 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions) directed two scoring drives in a loss to FAU and made his starting debut Sept. 28 in a 49-21 loss to Miami. He hurt his knee the following week against Cincinnati and appeared in only three more games thereafter.
White, who led Fort Lauderdale University to a 2012 state title in his first year as a starting quarterback at any level, was thrust into action Halloween night at Houston. Before an ESPN audience, he threw for 311 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in an encouraging 35-23 loss.
In four ensuing starts, all losses, he threw one touchdown and eight picks.
"On top of that, you've got an offensive line, tight end group and receiving groups just trying to learn themselves as well," Taggart recalled. "So it's not like you have anything solid there to help those young guys out. Then we couldn't run the football; now you're telling those guys to win the game for you, and that was hard."
In the ensuing months, the two studied, lifted and threw thousands of routes to receivers — often together. In spare time, they frequently attended USF baseball games (both brandished pro baseball potential in high school), played video games and tried to out-gorge the other. White recalls them combining to put away 13 dancing crab rolls one night at a New Tampa sushi place.
"We might as well be roommates," he said.
"Being around Mike, as much as we are, we have a good friendship and off the field, we're best friends," said Bench, his southwest Georgia drawl as thick as the humidity. "On the field, we're competing for a job. That's the way it is. I love competition and I wouldn't have it any other way."
Nor would Taggart, who insists every job is up for grabs at this stage.
Bench, who has dropped a few pounds (to 214), posted better numbers — with a better supporting cast — in the spring game. White, who has added 25 pounds (to 211) to his 6-foot-4 body, arguably had the best overall spring and took the initial snaps Monday. Taggart said he'd like to settle on a starter after the first two weeks of camp.
At any rate, he disputes the adage that any team that has two quarterbacks really has none. He insists both are ready to create plays. Beats a spark.
"It just helps everybody when guys aren't afraid," Taggart said. "They're comfortable now and if they're not sure they ask a question and get the answer."