ATLANTA — Taylor Bennett has a tough act to follow as Georgia Tech's starting quarterback — his own.
Even in a loss, Bennett's showing in the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville changed the outlook for Georgia Tech's 2007 season. Bennett set a school bowl record, passing for 326 yards and three touchdowns.
The performance gave Tech fans new reason for optimism in 2007, when Bennett takes over as the full-time starter.
Bennett's bowl showing in the 38-35 loss to West Virginia certainly surprised Tech coach Chan Gailey, who on Thursday said "To have all those yards and to make all the throws he made, I didn't know he could do that, I'll be honest with you. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw him."
But Tech tailback Tashard Choice says he was "not at all" surprised by Bennett's big numbers.
"That's because of the things he does off the field," Choice said.
"I think Taylor is one of the guys who understands the game of football. I say he's a student of the game because he looks at a lot of things in details — the defenses and what coverages they're running. He understands what every player is supposed to do on our side of the ball and where they're supposed to be. That's one thing he really likes and is going to make him a really good player."
The Yellow Jackets will have their first fall practice on Friday and it would take an injury or a major preseason surprise for Bennett to lose the starting job for the Sept. 1 opening game at Notre Dame.
Bennett certainly won't lose the job for a lack of studying. Choice wasn't the only player to refer to Bennett as a student of the game because the junior is widely respected on the team for the time he spends studying film.
Bennett watches film with his coaches. He watches more film by himself. He then has special DVDs made so he can look at more plays in his dorm room.
He studies his practice performance. He studies his games. He studies opponents' games. He studies the game tendencies of new Notre Dame coaches at their previous schools.
Then Bennett studies more.
Asked how much time he spends looking at film, Bennett says "A lot of hours."
But he's not complaining. It's what he loves.
"I can never get tired of that," he said.
The passion for studying game film is not unprecedented. One example: There are many stories of Peyton Manning's marathon film sessions at Tennessee and now with the Indianapolis Colts.
"I think the great ones do that," Gailey said. "I think the great ones spend that kind of time. Some people call them studious. Some people call them gym rats. They want to get better and watch film all the time."
Said Gailey of Bennett: "He falls into those categories. He is very eager to be the best player he can be, and he goes to a lot of lengths to try to do that."
Bennett succeeds the wildly erratic Reggie Ball. Bennett's bowl opportunity came because Ball was declared academically ineligible.
In his final two games, Ball completed only 6 of 22 passes with two interceptions in a 15-12 loss to Georgia and only 9 of 29 passes with two interceptions in a 9-6 loss to Wake Forest in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
The poor ending to Ball's career only made Bennett's bowl breakthrough all the more enticing for Tech fans, but the soaring expectations make Gailey ask for restraint.
"That's what we have to be careful of, to let one game crown somebody with some identity or some certain abilities that really we're not there yet," Gailey said.
"He's played well when he's had the opportunities. I think he's going to be a very good quarterback. But can he handle it when it's all his? When you're a backup, everybody loves you. But can you handle it when it's all yours?"
Bennett is certain to be tested early by defenses who will stack the line and dare him to pass, a strategy made even more predictable by Tech's loss of star receiver Calvin Johnson to the NFL.
Tech center Kevin Tuminello says Bennett will be ready for the challenge.
"In the Gator Bowl he stepped right in and did everything well," Tuminello said. "I attribute that to his work ethic. He knew everything about them. I don't know how many hours of film he watched. He was always talking about what they do. He's a real student of the game and it shows."