Lincoln Southwest Head Coach Mark King isn't one to just start throwing out praise to get some of his players some attention. After all, he at one point had Baker Steinkuhler playing on his Southwest team, who was a five-star prospect and rated as one of the best in the country. He had Baker's older brother, Ty, before that – a two-year starter for the Huskers.
Tavarius "Tay" Bender isn't either of them.
He could be better.
Now, Bender isn't a lineman like those two were, but much of the type of excellence you want to see in any athlete, King says Bender has in abundance.
"There's nothing he can't do. He has great hips, great lateral mobility, solid speed, he's quick and his arm is strong and accurate," King said of the 6-3, 197 lbs. Bender who will be starting under center for Southwest this season.
If you want an idea of his athleticism, Bender played cornerback last year and some time on offense as a receiver. In addition, as a sophomore, he ran the 100 meter in 11.1, electronic. Heck, he even kicked extra points for the team.
But it wasn't until the Elite 11 camp at TCU in mid-April this year that he finally got his first real chance to throw the ball seriously since before he was on the varsity squad. "That was my first time throwing the ball in a couple of months. But it's been a lot longer than that since I threw in an actual game. It actually felt weird throwing, because I had gotten used to backpedaling at corner, knocking balls down and all that," he said.
While Tay said that he has had this penchant for passing since he had a ball in his hands as a young kid, he didn't realize much of his potential until his freshman year. It was at that time that someone close to him who was also a coach, got him to change a few things around. "My dad (Jeremy) was more a coach about the running aspect. But it was my uncle (Scott) who basically taught me how to throw," Tay said of Scott Bender, the defensive backs and receivers coach for Southwest now as well as an assistant under coach King when he had the head job at Lincoln Northeast.
Scott also corrected perhaps the most important facet of Bender as a throwing QB. "I used to throw the ball sidearm. I mean, I had really, really bad mechanics," Tay said. "He taught me how to throw over the top, which I didn't do until my freshman year. After I started throwing that way, I went from completing 30 percent of my passes to around 70 percent."
"It goes back to something we really believed in at Northeast, and that was that good quarterback play started with footwork, but it also had to do with how you throw. I think Scott deserves a lot of the credit for Tay being mechanically where he's at right now," he said.
King minces no words when talking about the upside of Bender and how he might compare with those around the country. But in the same breath he'll tell you that if the game is close and they need a stop on defense don't be surprised if his prized QB is trotting onto the field. "Oh yeah, if we feel that a defensive stop is the difference between winning and losing, you bet he might go out there," King said. "The kid just makes plays."
Back to the camp, Bender said that it wasn't instantaneous, that mental and physical transition from playing on one side of the ball and then going into this camp where you were being specifically tested for the other. It had been a long time since he backpedaled from center rather than backpedaling off the line of scrimmage as a wide receiver was about to make his cut. It had been a long time since he was aiming at targets rather than opposing players.
It took a few reps to get some of it back.
"My main focus going in was just on getting my footwork back, getting my arm back and start hitting spots. After my first few throws and warming up, I was just coming back gradually," he said. "And once we started doing routes I was getting more comfortable and things started playing itself out.
"We started doing some accuracy things, and I think we got to go about 10 times each," he continued. "I probably didn't really get comfortable until around the seventh time through. But after that it felt pretty good. After that, I started actually throwing with some intensity."
Tay at the Elite 11 QB Camp at TCU
Over half way through the reps available to a player before he finally started feeling once again like a QB, some players might panic and think that they should have waited and maybe went to one of these things when they felt they were all the way back. After all, Bender was at the same camp which featured players like Kiehl Frazier, J.W. Walsh and Kendal Thompson, all members of the Scout.com Top 150. Also there was Corbin Berkstresser, a senior-to-be and currently a commit to Missouri, who was in the same group with Tay.
From not throwing the ball for two months and then having to face off against this type of competition isn't normally a recipe for success. It's actually an event with a lot of potential for disaster.
When the dust settled, this is what Greg Powers, a regional recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said of Bender's performance:
Analysis: Bender already has that look. He is big and strong and for a class of 2012 kid he was extremely accurate. As a matter of fact he probably had the most accurate arm in his grouping. He will be the odds on favorite to be the top ranked guy from the state of Nebraska for the Class of 2012.
Ask King and he'd probably say Powers shouldn't have stopped there.
"There's nobody better. I mean nobody. This young man could be and really, should be, considered one of the best in the country," he said. "I'm not kidding you. Put him in Texas or California where kids get all kinds of attention, I think everyone would know his name by now. But things move a little slower when you play in Lincoln, Nebraska."
King is probably correct on that. Well, except for that other team which plays in the middle of town. The one with the "N" on the side of the building.
You have to think that if the head coach is saying this about this young man, the young man himself must be awfully confident about what he can do and is just chomping at the bit to show it. Well, Bender is chomping at the bit, but he said not to show it. He just wants to play.
"I told coach that if I could fast forward time to the first game of the year, that's just what I'd do. I've been waiting for this opportunity for a long time," he said. "But that doesn't mean that I think I have done anything, because I really haven't.
"For me, the most important things I consider right now are being a leader for my team, trying to get better at what I do every day and realizing that no matter how good you think you are, it's never as good as you could be and there's always someone out there who is better."
It's a few months until September 1st of his junior year, the first day any college can actually offer him in writing. Of course, we know that the verbal offer has become the big fad as of late. It's the foot in the door for schools when waiting for the first official day for offers isn't looked at as quite good enough.
Considering how long it's been since Bender actually played QB, it's no surprise that he doesn't have the offers. But he already has more than a few letters coming in. "Right now I have gotten letters from Texas A&M, Purdue, UNO (Nebraska-Omaha), Wayne State, Michigan and Ohio," he said.
The surprise here may be that Nebraska hasn't sent him a letter. The Wolverines have, but not the Huskers? From my own personal experience, I have seen my share of players and their parents who have gotten in a lather from the fact that schools from outside of the state saw something that the home-state Huskers apparently couldn't.
King isn't worried about it, because while he will go to the wall in regard to talking about his player's potential, he realizes that in the middle of nowhere, which some assume is exactly where Nebraska is, the message takes time to get out. And Bender isn't worried about it, because he said that it's not something he needs to even think about right now. Not even as he gets ready to head to the Elite QB Academy, the annual camp held at Nebraska and taught by Husker quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson.
For many young aspiring quarterbacks and perhaps some who have accomplished a few things here and there, this is as much an audition as it is a camp where they can learn.
Bender said it's a chance to learn. Anything else is something he isn't thinking about at all. "My focus is my junior year. My focus is working hard and trying to stay healthy. Worrying about recruiting or what others think of me won't do my team any good," he said. "I'm going to this camp, because I want to pick up on some things that will make me a better quarterback. If someone pulls me out and talks about what I have done and that they like it, that's great.
"But I'm not going there for that. I am going there to get better."
Consider the bandwagon moving. Whether you are a fan of the Southwest football team or just a fan of in-state athletes, Bender's name is one you should probably get to know. It's, of course, impossible to say what that means down the road. And this is simply not the kind of state where he'll get so much attention his name will become like mental furniture from coast-to-coast.
But in the two years he has remaining, King is steadfast in his belief in his future QB. If you don't know about Tay Bender now, you will. "You put him next to Sam Bradford and Bradford is going to have about 25 pounds on him, but that's about it. Heck, put him next to any player in the country," he said. "If he was anywhere but in this part of the country, he'd probably have a hundred offers. Here, it takes a little time to get it out.
"But it's coming, a little bit here and there. People will start to see just how good he can be."
But King said that he still might throw Bender out there on defense