Future WSU QB Bender gearing up

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – When it comes to Washington State's quarterback in waiting, the countdown has begun. Last Monday was the first day of practice for Cougar verbal commit Peyton Bender – the first day in his last year as a high school athlete.

"I'm excited to get out and start playing," Bender said of the first practice. "It's a little surreal knowing that this is my last year (in high school), but I really just want to have fun and prepare myself as best I can for Washington State. I want to be ready for the intensity of what it's going to be like up there."

He can make it official and sign with Washington State in less than six months.

In some ways, Bender was born to be a quarterback. He was named after QB Peyton Manning, who was a University of Tennessee star when Bender's father took a liking to the moniker.

Bender started playing football at age seven. His coaches immediately put him at quarterback, and he has never played another position.

The family moved from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale when Bender was a ninth-grader. He enrolled at Cardinal Gibbons, where his brother, Chase, was the starting QB in 2010 and 2011.

Chase is now a sophomore backup quarterback at Colgate University.

Peyton, meanwhile, took over as a varsity co-starter in 2012, splitting time with the since-graduated Ryan Giaratano.

This marks the fourth-straight year that a Bender boy will start games at quarterback for Cardinal Gibbons.

So, yes, quarterbacking is in Bender's blood.

What can Cougars fans expect of their prospective future QB?

That's anyone's guess -- that's why they play the games, after all. But one thing is for sure: Cougfan.com will be there live and in person at each of Bender's games this season.

In other words, while we don't know how Bender will perform this year -- let alone how good he can eventually be at Washington State – here are 10 things to be aware of and look for as the season plays out:

1) Easy transition: By the time Bender gets to Washington State, he will be in his third year in the Cougars' offense. Gibbons coach Mike Morrill is a fan of Mike Leach and installed the "Air Raid" offense in 2012. It was just a coincidence that his quarterback – Bender – would then pick Washington State as his future school several months later. "I love this offense," Bender said. "We throw a ton, and we have a lot of playmakers."

2) Loyalty still exists: Washington State was the first school to offer a Bender a scholarship – and he accepted. Later, when Penn State offered and tried to change his mind, Bender said he firmly rejected those overtures.

3) Explosive offense: Gibbons returns 10 starters from an offense that averaged 32.4 points per game. Bender's top playmaker is senior WR Trevon Lee, who had 35 catches last season for 704 yards and 11 TDs, earning first-team All-Broward County honors. Also earning that honor was OL Kadeem Smith, a senior this year. Senior OL Eric Lenzen was named pre-season All-Broward this season by Friday Night Football magazine. Two of Bender's receivers have committed to colleges – George Rushing (Louisville) and Christian Blake (Northern Illinois).

4) Defense in doubt: But Gibbons, which went 7-3 last season and failed to make the playoffs, returns only five starters from a defense that has had to rebuild its entire secondary.

5) Playoff push: There are four teams in Gibbons' district. (It's District16, Class 5A. The classes are based on enrollment, with 8A being the biggest.) The top two teams make the playoffs. Gibbons will likely be favored against Key West and heavy underdogs against American Heritage. Making the playoffs could come down to the district game at Miami Jackson, which made the state semifinals last year.

6) Staying close to home: Of Gibbons' 10 regular-season games, nine of them will be played in its home county (Broward). The exception is the Jackson game, which will be in Miami.

7) Broward County loaded with talent: Florida, in general, is gifted with perhaps the highest concentration of prep football stars in the nation. Broward teams won two of Florida's eight state titles last season for the first time in county history. And Broward has a legitimate chance to win four state titles this year.

8) QB vs. DBs: Broward is top-heavy in quarterbacks and defensive backs this year, which will make for interesting matchups. Perhaps the county's most-hyped QB is Sean White (University School), who this summer was named the MVP of the Elite 11 national quarterback camp.

9) Colleges flock to South Florida: When you add Miami-Dade County QBs to the list of top Broward passers, you get an embarrassment of riches. Here are this year's top QBs in the two-county area and what college they will be attending: Sean White (Auburn); Peyton Bender (Washington State); Hialeah's Alin Edouard (Miami); Booker T. Washington's Treon Harris (Florida State); St. Thomas Aquinas' Wade Freebeck (Pitt). In addition, Carol City QB Trayon Gray is committed to Miami as an "athlete". And the area's top uncommitted passers are Jackson's Quinton "Winky" Flowers, Coral Reef's Nicodem Pierre and Norland's Taron James.

10) Challenge the rankings: In Friday Night Football, an annual magazine that covers Florida, Flowers is ranked the No. 1 QB in the state. Harris is ranked seventh, White eighth, Bender ninth and Pierre 10th. Perhaps Bender can dispel those rankings on Oct. 19, when he and his Gibbons team play Flowers and Miami Jackson High.

Here's a look at Gibbons' 2013 schedule:

Fri Aug. 23 - at Belen (exhibition)
Fri Aug. 30 - Western
Fri Sep. 6 - at Everglades
Thu Sep. 12 Cooper City
Fri Sep. 20 - at Boyd Anderson
Fri Sep. 27 - at Northeast
Fri Oct. 4 – Key West (district opener)
Sat Oct. 19 – at Jackson (district game)
Fri Oct. 25 – Ely
Fri Nov. 1 – American Heritage (district finale)
Fri Nov. 8 - Coral Springs

About the author: Based in Miami, Walter Villa is a free-lance writer who has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, ESPN.com, Baseball America, Sports Illustrated.com and many more. He also served as an assistant sports editor at The Miami Herald for 15 years. He will be following Peyton Bender this season for Cougfan.com.

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