May 14, 2013 3:30:17 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Steven Bench is officially a college football free agent and currently touring his future destinations.
Bench, who announced two weeks ago that he was transferring after one season at Penn State University, will visit three school campuses over the course of eight days and made it official this past weekend that Mississippi State University is on that list.
Bench began his two-day visit the University of South Florida today and will arrive at North Carolina State University this weekend and then MSU on May 20 and 21.
"There's nothing to read into the order of the visits or anything like that," Bench said in a phone interview with The Dispatch. "That's just how the visits lined up with the staffs of each school."
In the phone interview with Bench Saturday, the former Penn State quarterback laid out the attractive nature of each school in his mind before he went on the visits.
Bench said MSU's main selling point is the previous relationship he already has with the program and the staff when he has spoken to MSU assistant coaches Les Koenning and Geoff Collins along with head coach Dan Mullen.
"They recruited me out of high school and I went to their camps to show them my skill set," Bench said. "With Mississippi State, there's no mystery here. They've seen me work, they've spoken to me before and they know what I'm about on and off the field as a person."
If Bench were to arrive at MSU, it would give the Bulldogs the possibility of five scholarships on the roster (Russell, redshirt sophomore Dak Prescott, Bench and the two freshman signees in Cord Sandberg and Damian Williams). Sandberg's stock in the upcoming MLB Draft in June continuing to rise as the current high school senior is ranked No. 40 on the Baseball America Top 100 draft eligible prospects list. Bench would provide future stability to the position as a competition for Prescott for that backup spot in 2013 and starting role after Russell graduates. After Prescott's surgery to correct an issue the his big toe of his left foot, MSU coach Dan Mullen and his staff were left with just Russell this spring as the only healthy scholarship quarterback.
"I also think Starkville is a classic college town," Bench said. "This is why the campus visit is so important because I've never been there before. I imagine it's a big fish in small pond atmosphere where the campus and town revolves around what's going on with the football program but I don't know for sure."
Bench's hometown of Cairo, Ga., is just 300 miles north of the USF campus in Tampa, Fla., and is the closest of any of the three schools he'll consider before making his final decision he said likely before the end of the month. South Florida, which is coming off a 3-9 season, and is expected to allow Bench to compete with third-year sophomore Matt Floyd for the starting quarterback position in fall camp for the 2013 season.
"I do feel like there's an opportunity there to play close to home and get a chance to be the starting quarterback of a BCS school on opening week," Bench said. "I know (new USF coach) Willie Taggart and he has expressed a major interest in me coming in there to compete for a starting job. As I've said all along, that means a lot to me."
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Bench appeared in two games for the Nittany Lions last season, completing 2 of 8 passes for 12 yards. The Cairo, Ga., native was a three-star recruit out of high school and under the NCAA sanctions to Penn State is able to play immediately with three years of eligibility remaining. Bench said he decided to leave Penn State because he was under the impressive junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and incoming freshman recruit Christian Hackenberg would be the two players competing for the starting quarterback role in fall camp. Ferguson and Bench split first-team reps in spring practices that just wrapped up in State College, Pa., last month.
"I think a big misconception about me is that I'm not considered a guy that can make plays with both my arm and my feet," Bench said. "I'm ran the Wing-T offense in high school and we threw the football maybe five or six times in a game. I can run and like to run when the plays break down. I think I'm perfect for a read-option based offense."
That read-option based offense is what attracts Bench to North Carolina State under new head coach Dave Doeren, who was hired after taking Northern Illinois University to a Orange Bowl berth last season. The Huskies were 23-4 in two season under Doeren with a spread-option offensive attack led by quarterback Jordan Lynch. Through the first 10 games of the 2012 season, Lynch has completed 162 of 258 passes for 2,175 yards with 19 touchdowns and three interceptions. Lynch was also leading the nation in rushing yards with 1,342 yards on 185 carries with 16 touchdowns. During the 2012 Midwest Athletic Conference championship game, Lynch broke Denard Robinson's NCAA single-season increased his rushing record for a quarterback to 1,771 yards on 271 carries.
"I need to get with them personally and see what their quarterback situation really is going into next season because I think the offense they will want to install is perfect for me," Bench said. "I have talked to Coach Doeren and they have expressed first and foremost they want me bad. That is something that is nice to hear from such a high profile program."
Another positive for Bench involving the Wolfpack program is a 2013 conference opponent as Bench's family including his parents and grandparents all attended Florida State University.
"October 26th - I already know the date they play Florida State and the opportunity to beat a team I grew up rooting for as a kid and then didn't recruit me out of high school at all is appealing to me very much," Bench said. "Plus I really think Raleigh, just like Tampa would be neat places to live as a college student."
Last weekend Bench completed a week of workouts in San Diego with nationally prestigious quarterback coach George Whitfield at his academy for quarterbacks. Whitfield has become highly respected for training quarterbacks in the offseason to prepare them for the NFL Draft. This spring Whitfield, a a former college and arena league quarterback, trained draft picks Landry Jones and Matt Scott but before that trained the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft each of the last two years (Andrew Luck and Cam Newton). He also works with current college players in the offseason including 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Clemson's Tajh Boyd.
"We worked on tightening up my mechanics and then watched some film to go over some pre-snap routine things that will help me be in charge of a offense in the future," Bench said. "It was such an awesome experience to be able to get the kind of specific help I needed to make me better at my craft."
Bench has said he'll likely "take a couple of days" after all his three visits are completed to make a decision on a transfer locale so he can be physically, mentally and academically ready to participate for fall camp in August.
"I don't want to drag this decision out just to create more drama because that's not the point here at all," Bench said. "It's an important decision for me in so many ways in terms of a football and non-football related future that I need to get to right but I think after my visits I'll have a feeling one way or another where I'm confident is the best fit."