Air Raid offense lures Florida prep star

Peyton Bender cast his lot with Cougars in 2012.

Leach’s presence reason Bender headed to WSU

In Florida, the college options for an aspiring quarterback are as abundant as bugs and beaches.

Sunshine State signal-callers were the darlings of college football in 2013. Blake Bortles led the University of Central Florida to a Fiesta Bowl victory but couldn’t outshine Florida State’s Jameis Winston, whose BCS championship game heroics served as an encore to a Heisman Trophy-winning season.

But despite living in a state with seven FBS schools, three of which have won national titles, Fort Lauderdale’s Peyton Bender had to head all the way to the Eastern border of the country’s northwestern-most state to find a campus to call home.

“I am 100 percent committed to Washington State,” the senior at Cardinal Gibbons High School said. “It’s a really good fit for me and my playing style. Distance isn’t really a problem for me, the way I look at it is going to FSU is an eight-hour car ride and flying to Washington State is like a six-hour plane ride.”

Bender – graded a three-star recruit by every major scouting service – pledged his services to WSU coach Mike Leach and his staff in the spring of his junior year and never wavered. In fact, the Cougars coaches relied on him to help them secure his future teammates.

“I was the first commit of the class,” Bender explained. “So afterward, whenever they had a kid they were trying to get they’d tell me to reach out to him, contact him through social media and stuff like that.”

The home-state schools held no special allure for Bender and a scholarship offer from Penn State was greeted with a “thanks, but no thanks.” The young quarterback knew where he was going and it wasn’t because of the depth chart, which he found favorable, or the campus, which he loved.

The paramount motivation for Bender to travel to play his college ball in a state with a different culture, weather and time zone, was to play for Leach in his Air Raid offense.

It’s the same offense he learned from coach Matt Dubuc at Gardinal Gibbons, who played for Spike Dykes at Texas Tech just a few years before Leach became the head coach in Lubbock. The pass-heavy offense is one that takes advantage of Bender’s intelligence, accuracy and highly-acclaimed footwork while disregarding the 6-foot-1, 185-pound quarterback’s height and size as deficiencies.

Bender has spent his senior year in frequent contact with the WSU coaching staff, speaking to them on the phone “at least once a week.”

“In May (seemingly) every college coach in the country came and asked us, ‘Is he solid, is he solid?’ ” Dubuc said. “… Let’s face it; he wouldn’t be going there if Mike Leach wasn’t there.”

A fractured collar bone in the District 16-5A championship game ended Bender’s senior season prematurely. But he is already cleared for physical activity and will begin physical therapy in a few weeks.

The injury should have little to no impact on Bender’s college playing career, one that he plans to start as soon as possible. After all, he isn’t traveling diagonally across the country to sit on the bench.

“Connor (Halliday)’s going to be the starter next year and I think they’re planning to redshirt me next year,” Bender said. “I’m going to have to go in there and compete for the job but I think I’m very capable of earning that job in my redshirt freshman year.”

He’ll have to beat out not only current backup quarterback Austin Apodaca but Tyler Bruggman as well. Bruggman was highly regarded coming out of high school last year and capably ran the WSU scout team while drawing praise from players and coaches for his performances in WSU’s Thursday Night Football underclassmen scrimmages.

But Dubuc has seen his protégé excel against some of the stiffest competition in talent-rich Florida and says that he’ll be surprised if Bender isn’t the Cougars starting quarterback two years from now.

“I know those two other kids are highly regarded but I’d put our guy up against anybody in the country,” Dubuc said. “I think he can do exactly what Mike Leach expects a quarterback to do.”

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