ATLANTA - Taylor Bennett understands Georgia Tech fans see him as an enigma.
For one game shy of three seasons, the Yellow Jacket faithful debated his talents. But the discussion always came back to this: How good can he really be when he couldn't beat out Reggie Ball for the job?
Then Bennett, thrust into the starter's job for the Gator Bowl by default when Ball failed out of school last December, completed 70 percent of his passes for a school bowl record 326 yards against West Virginia.
The performance did little to settle the debate. The initial reaction: Why wasn't he playing sooner? That question soon gave way to: Is Bennett for real, or was his Gator Bowl brilliance a fluke against one of the nation's worst secondaries?
Bennett, ever the mystery wrapped in a riddle, just shrugs his shoulders, smiles his aw-shucks grin, and gives a cryptic answer.
"When you have good players around you like I did in the Gator Bowl, that can happen," Bennett says, referring in large part to former teammate Calvin Johnson, who caught nine passes for 186 yards. "But - and this is a big 'but' - that can happen here this season, too."
Assuming Bennett doesn't get hurt in preseason practice, which opened Friday, he will be the Jackets' starting quarterback when they open the season at Notre Dame. Two weeks later, Boston College visits Atlanta for Georgia Tech's Atlantic Coast Conference opener.
Those two games will set the tone for the Jackets in 2007. And likely settle the Bennett debate, once and for all.
Bennett finds the revisionist history surrounding the previous three years humorous. He can't count - or even estimate - the number of students, alumni and other Bennett-backers who have told him he should have been the starting quarterback all along.
"What they don't understand was there was a reason I was sitting - I didn't know anything," Bennett said. "I only started one year in high school. When I got here, I couldn't tell you the difference between a cover-2 defense and a cover-3 or 4. As much as I wanted to play, I know I wasn't ready to play mentally or physically."
And the maturing process took years, not months. Gailey declared the quarterback job open prior to 2005 spring practice. Ball had regressed in 2004 after a promising freshman season, and Gailey expected Bennett, having spent a year in the system, to challenge for the job.
Bennett didn't. Ball kept the job and improved throughout his junior season.
Bennett finally made strides in 2006 spring practice. Tailback Tashard Choice said Bennett and Ball were "about even" coming out of the workouts.
But by then Ball had three years experience, and with a talented group returning, including Johnson, last fall was the wrong time to experiment at quarterback.
"I guess with Reggie being there for so long and being the starter for so long, Taylor really had to look so much better than Reggie to take the job," Choice said. "So they went with Reggie, and that was OK because we all believed in Reggie."
Ball's heroic flair and strong leadership skills made him hard popular with teammates. For all the mistakes that infuriated the fan base, Ball made big plays again and again.
He beat Auburn twice. He and Johnson rallied the Jackets to a last-second victory over Clemson in 2004. Ball was the MVP of the 2004 Champs Sports Bowl and led the Jackets to a 2005 upset of Miami in the Orange Bowl.
And last season, before his meltdowns in the losses to Georgia and Wake Forest that will forever mark his career, he led the Jackets to a 7-1 ACC record, the league's best regular-season mark. Ball rallied his team from a second-half deficit in three wins.
Gailey remembers those games every time his loyalty to Ball is questioned.
"I felt Reggie was the quarterback that gave us the best chance to win," Gailey said. "And that was the right call a lot of days."
The Ball-Bennett debate is irrelevant now.
Ball exhausted his eligibility last season, and Bennett grew into a potential star in spring practice.
Georgia Tech will run an offense designed to fit Bennett's strengths as a pocket passer and Choice's running skills, not one centered around getting the ball to Johnson and exploiting defenses with Ball's scrambling ability.
The Jackets' first-year offensive coordinator, John Bond, is convinced Bennett is the real deal.
"It wasn't a fluke that he put up big numbers in the bowl game," Bond said. "Taylor can play. The thing is, he just hasn't played. But as far as I'm concerned, that's all he is lacking is game experience. He can make all the throws. He's a good leader. If Taylor Bennett plays up to his potential, he can be an outstanding quarterback.
"And I'm expecting that to happen."
Bond is not the only one. Bennett earned his teammates' respect in the Gator Bowl, as much for his preparation as his execution. He is a game-film junkie, much like the NFL star whose camp he worked as a counselor this summer: the Colts' Peyton Manning, who spends more time watching film than Roger Ebert.
Manning claims he watches every play at least 16 times. Bennett can't match that, but he comes close. And that's eased his transition from to starter from understudy.
"It's different, but I'm pretty comfortable with it," he said. "Hopefully, I don't mess up between now and Notre Dame. That makes me sound pretty comfortable, huh?"
But that's Bennett, an enigma to the end.