Taylor Bennett was standing in the Georgia Tech players' lounge Tuesday, towering over a former Yellow Jackets quarterback who had come to campus to meet the newest member of the fraternity.
"Man, that's Joe Hamilton!" Bennett said of the former record-setting quarterback. "I used to love watching him play."
Bennett, 6 feet 3 and 213 pounds, never could have imagined that he would be the starting quarterback for the No. 15 Yellow Jackets in Saturday's game against No. 4 Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium. But if junior Reggie Ball doesn't recover from the effects of viral meningitis this week, Bennett will probably take most of the offensive snaps, if not all of them, in the key ACC contest.
Ball, perhaps the ACC's most improved quarterback in his first two starts this year, didn't play in last Saturday's 28-13 victory over Connecticut. He was hospitalized at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta several hours before the game after complaining of severe headaches and fatigue. Ball was released Monday after undergoing a battery of tests.
Bennett started his first college game against the Huskies and completed 11 of 30 passes for 142 yards and one touchdown.
Unless Ball shows dramatic improvement in the next few days, Bennett figures to take most of the snaps in practice this week.
"He's obviously a little better than the last time I saw him," Georgia Tech Coach Chan Gailey said Tuesday, after meeting with Ball the day before. "We'll work him back slowly. We're not going to take any chances. We'll have to make sure he understands the process to get him back to full speed. If he practices, he'll want to take every snap."
Ball, who completed 49.4 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception in two games, was expected to take some snaps in Tuesday's practice. But Gailey said he worries about rushing Ball back into action, as doctors have advised the coaching staff that Ball's symptoms could return if he does too much too soon.
"I think we'll have to wait and see how he does on the field," Gailey said. "If he gets hot and sweaty, do the symptoms come back? His body has been through a pretty traumatic thing. You've got to make sure you don't incite a repeat of that."
Bennett, a redshirt freshman from Chesterfield, Mo., might have seemed like the most unlikely of replacements two years ago. He started only one season at Lafayette High School outside St. Louis after sitting three years behind Josh Mathews, now a backup quarterback at Division II Northwest Missouri State.
With very few colleges recruiting him during his senior season, Bennett and his mother, Wendy Jones, spent Friday nights after each of his games making about 25 game tapes to send to coaches. Each Monday morning, the tapes were shipped overnight to colleges across the country.
Bennett initially set his expectations high, sending highlight tapes to Florida, Notre Dame and other big-time college football programs. But when he got little feedback, aside from lukewarm interest from Baylor and Boise State, Bennett decided to expand his possibilities. After Bennett's third game, he sent a tape to Georgia Tech.
"It was really on a whim," Bennett said. "I knew Coach Gailey was here, and I knew Georgia Tech was in Atlanta. Other than that, I really didn't know much about the school."
The Wednesday after the tape was sent to the Yellow Jackets, Bennet's mother called him at school with exciting news: Georgia Tech had offered him a scholarship even though none of its coaches had watched him play in a game in person.
"I was in shock," Bennett said. "I thought my mother was kidding. She called me and told me the school and I was stunned."
Said Gailey: "I think we saw potential. I think it was the person and the potential. I felt the desire. He wanted to be a great quarterback. He was looking for somewhere to help him reach that goal."
Bennett graduated early from high school, enrolled at Georgia Tech in December 2003 and practiced with the Yellow Jackets before they played Tulsa in the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho. He was Ball's backup last season, but didn't play in a game and preserved his redshirt season. Bennett expected to see only limited action behind Ball this season, and never imagined he would start a game.
"I'd like for him to be more accurate," Gailey said. "I thought he rushed a few things. The game will slow down for him, it will. The next time he walks out there, he'll see things more clearly."