It's been almost four years since Benji Walker, who threw for over 4,000 yards at Brentwood Academy, has been in the starting lineup for a football game. As Vanderbilt's only returning quarterback with playing experience, Walker emerged after last season as the leading candidate to take over the job held for three-and-a-half seasons by Greg Zolman.
But the 6-4 junior has little playing experience to show for his three years on campus-- he mostly stood by on the sidelines and observed as the durable Zolman played every meaningful snap. In 2000 and 2001 Walker's role was limited to mop-up duty (though he did see limited action in hostile arenas at Florida and Tennessee).
In the interim Walker has come to realize just how precious is the chance to start at quarterback for an SEC program-- and he has done everything within his power during the offseason to seize his opportunity to fill the starter's role. His diligence in improving every aspect of his game has not gone unnoticed by his coaches.
"Benji's put on 10 or 15 pounds," said Coach Bobby Johnson, who raved about Walker before the assembled media at SEC Media Days. "We ran a conditioning test the other day, and Benji comes in after the conditioning test, and does a personal record on lifting. He is serious about it."
The soft-spoken Walker is nonchalant about Johnson's praise. "It was really important to me this summer to me to get stronger, to prevent injury and enhance my skills," he says. "I was on a really specific diet, and my strength has really improved."
The versatile "B-Dub" poses a dual running-passing threat at quarterback that Commodore opponents have perhaps not seen since Eric "Showtime" Jones roamed the Astroturf in 1988. Receivers say Walker throws a better deep ball than Zolman, the school's all-time leading passer. With running-back speed and mobility, he is also adept at both scrambling and running the option. In practices he has demonstrated an uncanny knack for turning a bad play into a good one.
Nonetheless, Walker finds himself locked in a quarterback battle with a redshirt freshman who is almost a younger clone of Walker. Jay Cutler is virtually the same height and weight as Walker, and possesses many of the same athletic traits. When they're in full pads, it's tough to tell them apart.
The two, good friends off the field, have waged a spirited battle for the starting job throughout the spring and into summer. "It's great competition," says Johnson. Walker carried a slight edge into fall camp based on his limited college playing experience, but Johnson has thus far refused to name a leader.
"We'll have a scrimmage the first Saturday after we start," said Johnson at Media Days. "We'll give both of them a lot of reps in that situation, then we'll grade the film and see who did the best. After that, we start getting ready for Georgia Tech and getting our gameplan installed. So we'll probably have to choose somebody after that."
Which quarterback wins the battle may well come down not only to which one executes better in practice-- but which one can think best on his feet. In Vandy's new system, the quarterback will actually be calling some plays at the line of scrimmage, says Johnson-- something that's becoming rarer and rarer in the college game.
"We put a lot of pressure on our quarterbacks," explained Johnson. "We want them to try to choose the best play in the best situation. Those guys have had some learning to do. They're having to go out there and not only execute our offense, make the throws and make the runs, but they're going to have to choose what we want to do in every situation.
"We do put a lot on them, and this will be a pretty tough transition for both of them."
Walker explained further. "The quarterback is going to have to make a lot of calls at the line of scrimmage, like directing the offensive linemen on which way to slide," he said. "There will also be some combo packages where we will have three or four plays to choose from, and the quarterback will call it when we get up on the line.
"It's pretty intense on the quarterback's part. You have to read fronts and coverages, and get us in the best play possible. In certain situations the coaches are going to trust us to recognize the play that we need to run, and go ahead and check to it."
Johnson has repeatedly gushed about how ideally suited his athletic quarterbacks are for his offensive scheme, which will occasionally make use of the option to keep defenses on their toes. "We like to be able to run the option," says Johnson. "I think it's a great talent equalizer, and that it gives the other defense something extra that they've got to be able to work against that week."
Walker says that after going through three seasons under former offensive coordinator Steve Crosby and quarterbacks coach Jeff Rutledge, the transition to a new, unfamiliar system in the spring was tough. But with each day of fall camp, he says, he is growing more comfortable with things.
"Now that we've come back to fall camp to learn things a second time, everything is starting to click," said Walker. "We can concentrate more on making the proper reads, and not really worry about how to run the plays correctly."
Cain's offensive package, though probably a little less complex than Crosby's pro-style scheme, is not exactly what you'd call uncomplicated either, said Walker. The fourth-year student says that the cramming he did to learn the new scheme over the spring and summer was every bit as tough as any college course he's taken thus far.
"We have some tough classes here at Vandy, but this was probably as hard as any of them," Walker said. "A lot of things go into it that people don't really understand. You've got to know the plays, but you've also got to be able to change plays at the line of scrimmage, and react on the move."
The opportunity is there for Walker. The new coaches are high on him. The offensive scheme is ideal for showcasing his talents. Still, the nagging question remains: will he be capable of maximizing his considerable gifts under game conditions?
"Benji's only had seven passes thrown in his career," said Johnson. "The problem he and Jay are both going to struggle with is obviously [lack of] experience."