TAMPA — You can measure his speed — 4.68 seconds in the 40-yard dash. You can analyze his arm — plenty strong enough. You can witness his dedication — relentless film-room and practice-field junkie, to be expected from the son of a coach.
But some things can’t be quantified.
To really find out about sophomore quarterback Steven Bench — the pride-and-joy of the Cairo (Ga.) High Syrupmakers, a guy who had a cup of coffee at Penn State and is now poised to make his first start for the University of South Florida Bulls — you’ve got to dig a little deeper.
Passion is his greatest quality.
“I could talk to you for days about what I love about football,’’ said Bench, who leads the Bulls (0-3) against the No. 15-ranked Miami Hurricanes (3-0) at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday. “I love everything about it. I love the contact, the camaraderie, the lights, the smell of the grass. I can get real, real corny with it.
“But I really love every single thing about it. It’s the best sport on earth, by far. I’m in love with the game.’’
After hearing him talk, after watching him play, that becomes obvious. Such passion translates into leadership. His personality matters. You can see that in his followers.
Bench, a 6-foot-2, 208-pound dual-threat quarterback, left Penn State after spring ball. It became clear his style no longer had him in the Nittany Lions’ plans for the No. 1 job. He quickly shopped for a new school. During Bench’s official visit at USF, he first met wide receiver Andre Davis.
“That’s my guy,’’ Davis said. “I already love Steven like a brother. He loves to win, but even more than that, he hates to lose. And I can relate to that. I think we’re going to feed off his confidence.’’
Bench’s intangibles are attractive for USF coaches, who chose sophomore Matt Floyd as the opening-night starter, then shifted to senior Bobby Eveld for two games.
“Steven’s got a little more fire about him,” USF offensive coordinator Walt Wells said. “He’s more excited about things. He gets the guys going a little bit. If something goes bad, it’s not like he goes in a shell or he’s just quiet. …He brings more energy to the huddle. Knowing what to do (in the playbook) let his personality come out more than anything.’’
And that’s what USF coach Willie Taggart sensed last spring, when Bench was deciding between the Bulls, N.C. State and Mississippi State. He was especially attractive because NCAA sanctions at Penn State allowed him to transfer and not sit out.
“We’re looking for a guy to rally the troops,’’ Taggart said. “Getting the team to play for you, I think that is so important. Look at any great quarterback out there and he does a good job of getting his team to play for him. They want to make plays for him. He says something and they listen. We need that.’’
Before his spring visit, Bench had never been to Tampa. His knowledge of USF was mostly based on the Bulls’ 2009 victory against Florida State in Tallahassee, where he attended every Seminole home game for six consecutive years. His parents, Steve and Glennie, are FSU graduates.
“I was there and I was shocked,’’ said Bench, who once dreamed of playing at FSU, but never received a scholarship offer. “Didn’t see that coming. I heard USF had a freshman quarterback from Tallahassee (B.J. Daniels) and thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ Then he’s throwing and running all over the place and I’m thinking, ‘Why didn’t Florida State offer this kid?’
“So USF was somewhat on my radar. Then when I’m starting to study schools, I know that they didn’t have a clear-cut starter coming out of spring. Being close to home was a big deal, so I didn’t have to catch three flights every time I wanted to go home. I could visualize playing here and living in Tampa. It just felt like home.’’
He never got that feeling at Penn State. Just getting there was accidental. Bench had committed to Rice, but one of his high-school coaches knew someone close to Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. Pretty soon, Bench’s film got seen. He visited and was swept away by the big-time lure.
Bench got into two games as a freshman, but described the experience as “culture shock’’ for both sides. Even in day-to-day living, he seemed out of place.
“No one could understand me,’’ Bench said in his Georgia twang. “I actually had people asking me to talk, just so they could listen. ‘Hey, say something. Let me hear that accent.’ I’d say, ‘I don’t have an accent.’ Then they’d laugh and say it sounded funny how I said the word ‘accent.’ ‘’
There were no hard feelings after the Penn State split, Bench said. He still roots for the Nittany Lions. But his biggest focus is on getting USF into the victory column.
He’s still distinctly South Georgia — to a point.
“You won’t catch me listening to country music — just hip-hop and rap,’’ he said.
Otherwise, he’s about hunting, playing golf and longing for his first foray into Florida bass-fishing. But that’s for the free time he still hasn’t discovered at USF.
“I wanted to come in, work hard, study and prove myself,’’ said Bench, whose father was a high-school football coach for nearly four decades. “You don’t come in all arrogant and thinking you’re the starter because you’re not. It has to be earned.
“That’s how my parents brought me up. You work hard and you enjoy this game. You can either be mad at something or you can find something to be happy about. I don’t want to walk around mad all the time. I want to smile, have a good time, have fun. And that’s what I try to bring to the field.’’