CFL Pass

Bombers' quarterback Bennett a 'freak-of-nature' athlete

It’s late Saturday morning and Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Bryan Bennett is entertaining some of his teammates’ kids by doing back flips on the field.

Not just any back flips. These are the kind you do from a standing-still position.

Crouch low, spring up, flip backward, land on your feet.

We did mention Bennett is a quarterback right?

“He’s a freak-of-nature athlete,” fellow Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols was saying Sunday.

“He does some incredible stuff. He’s a very athletic dude who could play multiple positions and does contribute on special teams, something we’re proud of.”

Bennett, a 27-year-old from the Los Angeles area, was a multi-sport athlete growing up. He lettered in track and field at his high school, competing in triple jump, long jump, 4×100 relay, and 300-metre hurdles, played on the basketball team (yes, he can dunk), and played several football positions, including cornerback, free safety, linebacker and quarterback.

He managed to parlay that athleticism into a job as the Bombers third-string quarterback last season and he took it a step further by pushing for playing time on special teams.

“I always kinda just looked at myself as a football player,” said Bennett, who is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. “Obviously, I’m a quarterback first but they always say, ‘The more you can do,’ right?”

He made seven special teams tackles in the regular season and made a massive play in the Bombers’ playoff win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders. With 40 seconds left in the game and the Bombers leading by just five, Riders returner Kyran Moore looked to have daylight ahead of him when Bennett stepped up and made a great open-field tackle at the Saskatchewan 34-yard line.

“He made a potential season-saving tackle,” Nichols said. “He just brings something extra to our team and to our QB room.”

Bennett has earned the trust of Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea and his assistants. Not every quarterback would have the skill set to play on kick-cover teams. Few players in the CFL are quite as multi-faceted.

“A lot of these guys would be two or three-sport athletes in high school,” O’Shea said. “Not all of them can do a back flip, that’s for sure.”

The back flips are something Bennett learned to do in high school.

“I was at track practice one day and I had done them on trampolines and stuff and I said ‘I’m gonna learn today,’” said Bennett who does some work as a track coach at his old high school in Encino, Calif., in the off-season. “So I stood in front of the long-jump pit, with the sand behind me so at least I’d have somewhere soft to land if I fell. And I just did it and said ‘Well, I guess I can back-flip now.’”

He doesn’t pull the trick out often, but was inspired by all the young kids running around the field on the weekend.

“Every once in a while,” he said. “The kids were running around, I thought I’d give them a little ‘Whoa…’”

All of this said, Bennett is not a slam dunk to make the Bombers this year.

The team brought in 23-year-old quarterback Sean McGuire for training camp and the former Western Illinois star has some advantages. He can throw, he can move his feet, he’s younger and he may have more upside than Bennett in terms of possibly developing into a starter some day.

Bennett’s advantages include experience, a strong arm, his special teams play and his role as the holder for picky place-kicker Justin Medlock.

Make no mistake though, it’s a heated competition.

“In the game of football, there’s always battles,” Bennett said. “There’s always gonna be somebody coming behind you and always somebody ahead of you. So, we all just come out here trying to make each other better. Sean is learning the system and I’m out there helping him out. He has questions, I answer them, just like Matt has done for me.”

One person who clearly hopes Bennett sticks around is Nichols.

“He’s a great dude, my kids love him,” Nichols said. “My daughter has a soccer number, 18, and she says ‘Just like my buddy Bryan’s number.’

“He’s become a great friend of mine, great friend of the family’s and he’s just an awesome dude.”

Bennett’s holding abilities could give him an edge

As trivial as it may seem to some, Bryan Bennett held a pivotal role with Winnipeg Blue Bombers last season as the holder for place-kicker Justin Medlock.

One of the most accurate kickers in CFL history, Medlock is known for being very particular about the work of his holders. He prefers to break in a holder in training camp and have him in the job all season long.

Last year, backup quarterback Alex Ross started out as the holder but was hurt in Week 1. That opened the door for Bennett, who handled the job the rest of the year and did very well.

That’s certainly a check-mark next to his name if it comes down to a tough decision for the coaching staff regarding the No. 3-quarterback position this season.

“Especially for Medlock, you know, he’s a very particular guy,” Bennett said. “But I love working with Medlock. He has helped me out a ton. Last year, just reps after reps after reps to get it right.”

Bombers starting quarterback Matt Nichols was a holder himself for his first few years in the CFL and he believes the job is under-rated.

“It’s a position that gets no recognition but sometimes the weight of the game’s on your shoulders to put a good hold down,” Nichols said. “It’s something a lot of people don’t think too much about but (Bennett) does an incredible job with his role.”

— Wyman