Peyton Bender – shows skill and poise…moves forward as Jayhawks QB

The Peyton Bender era officially began for Kansas football Sept. 2 at Memorial Stadium in the season opener against Southeast Missouri State in front of 32,134 fans with mostly sunny skies and 83-degree weather.

On KU’s first play from scrimmage, Bender caught the snap in shotgun from center Mesa Ribordy and threw a four-yard pass to wide receiver Jeremiah Booker. And then with third down and six, it happened. The transfer from Itawamba Community College and former Washington State quarterback dropped a short pass to receiver Steven Sims on a slant route, who made a nifty move before racing 77 yards for a touchdown.

As the crimson and blue faithful roared and waved the wheat, Peyton Bender came running off the field pumping his right fist and then raising his index finger in the air. Yes, downtrodden KU has mountains to climb, but Bender was thrilled about throwing his first touchdown at Mount Oread. While Bender didn’t show off his “freakish arm” (the words KU coach David Beaty used when signing him last December) on the play, Jayhawk fans were elated by just seeing a glimpse of likely the best quarterback KU’s had since record-setting Todd Reesing graduated in 2009.

Peyton Bender would pass for four touchdowns for 364 yards, which was the best debut by a Jayhawk quarterback in the 127-year history of the program, during KU’s 38-16 victory, the most in both categories since Reesing hit those marks against Missouri in ‘09. Reesing, in fact, was at the game as the 2007 Orange Bowl team was inducted into the KU Athletics Hall of Fame at halftime.

Bender shrugged off his impressive performance, crediting his teammates for making plays and stating the need to get better.

“You just have to attribute the players around me,” Bender said. “They made great plays, like the one Chase (Harrell) made on the fade route (for a one-handed touchdown catch) that was incredible. We have a lot to improve on and we left a lot out there, to be honest.”

Peyton Bender and redshirt sophomore Carter Stanley “left a lot out there” battling for eight months for the starting quarterback spot. It was an intense and tireless competition between two close friends and roommates. They each tried to make their case in practice that they should be the starter.

In the end, Bender, as most observers predicted, won the job. However, Beaty didn’t tell him he was starting against Southeast Missouri State until earlier on game day after a late morning meeting at the hotel.

“I didn’t think too much of it,” Bender said of his initial reaction. “I thought that I had done everything that I could do and I was confident that they were going to choose me. It is nice to know that they have faith in me and they chose me to be the guy.”

Competing against Stanley for such a long time made Bender mentally tougher and gave him the confidence he can achieve anything he wants to on the field.

“Throughout the whole process, I really just tried to play my game, not worry about what he was doing and control what I can control,” Bender said. “Anytime you can go through competition, it makes you better so I think just doing what I do and not think too much about what he’s doing really helped me out a lot.”

Peyton Bender is ready to lead the Air Raid Jayhawks to what he hopes is KU’s best offense since 2009 as Kansas has scored no more than 22.3 points per game (2011) post-Reesing while using 10 different quarterbacks before this season. Through four games entering October, KU (1-3) was averaging 32.3 points per game, a major improvement over its paltry 20.3 ppg last year and 15.2 ppg in 2015.

Bender had completed 102 of 178 passes (57.3 percent) for 1,227 yards (306.8 yards per game) and seven touchdowns with seven interceptions. The 6-1, 190-pound quarterback recorded 1,030 yards passing in his first three games, becoming the fastest Jayhawk to reach 1,000 career passing yards in school history. Those 1,030 yards were also the most in a three-game span for a KU quarterback since Reesing passed for 1,174 yards in three consecutive games in 2009.

Peyton Bender has shown impressive poise, but also some inaccuracy on his passes. He threw seven interceptions in his first three games against SEMO, Central Michigan and West Virginia. Beaty knows there is much room for improvement considering Bender’s played so few major college games, but believes his signal caller has great potential.

“(Quarterbacks coach) Garrett Riley’s doing a great job with that young man,” Beaty said. “He’s going to be a really good player for us as we move on.”

The KU coach has always known he was getting a special player.“The kid’s very talented,” Beaty said. “He’s got as nice of an arm as I’ve been around, unbelievably quick release, very smart guy.”

Bender’s teammates also love what he brings to the most important position in the game.

“I like just his patience in the pocket,” Booker said. “He knows where he needs to go with the ball. He does a great job of reading coverages.

If something goes wrong, he doesn’t get too high or get too low. He stays even level and he’s ready to go for the next play.”

Peyton Bender was seemingly destined to play quarterback since his dad, Mike, named him after Peyton Manning. Bender grew up playing baseball before switching to football and excelling at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he passed for 2,184 yards and 28 touchdowns his senior year while ranked the No. 25 pro-style quarterback in the nation by Rivals.com.

After redshirting his first season at Washington State under coach Mike Leach, Bender lost a very tight battle for the starting quarterback spot to Luke Falk (Heisman Trophy candidate this season) as a redshirt freshman. Bender played in five games in 2015, starting one at Washington in the Apple Cup, completing 53 of 91 passes for 498 yards and three touchdowns for the year.

Then adversity struck as Bender was ruled academically ineligible. He decided to revive his academic and football career at Itawamba Community College in northeast Mississippi, a juco far removed from the limelight and pageantry of major college football.

In his one season there, Peyton Bender was dominate, completing 65 percent of his passes and throwing for 2,733 yards (303.7 yards per game) and 21 touchdowns, to just four interceptions. He turned out his best game with a mind-boggling 566 passing yards against East Mississippi.

For Bender, it was a wakeup call. He matured and refocused on his studies and football while becoming a coveted FBS prospect again. Bender, who was lured to Kansas, in large part, by his close relationship to Beaty, said he “turned the page and I’m just looking forward to the future now.”

He’s relishing his experience in Lawrence, where he feels blessed to be back playing football in a Power Five Conference.

“It was kind of a shock going from Division I to juco, a lot different programs,” Bender said. “But I had a blast playing juco. I had a ton of fun down there, but ultimately, you want to play at the highest level. It’s just nice to be back here and playing at that level.”

Bender, who was named to the Big 12 Commissioner’s and Athletic Director’s Honor

Roll in spring 2017, has much experience playing the Air Raid offense at every level, including high school, junior college, and at Washington State. That made his adjustment easier to KU’s Air Raid, although the offense differs somewhat to what he played at WSU.

“It’s a little bit more complicated,” Bender said. “We do more in the run game. We do a little more play-action passing here. But 60 percent of the concepts are the same. I’d say here we have a little bit more complicated of a run game, and I think we take some more shots down the field in this offense than the previous Air Raids.”

Bender said he is “extremely confident” in the offense. “We’ve got a ton of reps throughout fall camp, and all those reps over and over become muscle memory,” he said. “I got extreme faith in all those guys — the receivers, to do their job. We’ve showed glimpses of how explosive we can be, we just need to become more consistent.”

Peyton Bender doesn’t have his eyes on breaking any of Reesing’s records. He just wants to put KU football back on the national map.

“If anything, I just want to bring wins to,” he said. “It’s something the fans deserve. It’s been a long time. If I can do anything, I just want to be remembered as a winner.”

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Article by David Garfield

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