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Benn blossoms as a Big Ten skill threat

8/21/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

RANTOUL, Ill. -- A smile splashed over Ron Zook's face earlier this month when the Illinois coach saw his star wide receiver getting roughed up in practice.

Zook wasn't the only one enjoying the moment.

"It felt good to get hit in practice, just to get hit, period," Illini sophomore Arrelious "Rejus" Benn said. "It feels great to come out 100 percent."

Benn is 100 percent for the first time in his college career, and that's bad news for the rest of the Big Ten. Consider what he did last season with a right shoulder that dislodged like a sliding door.

He first dislocated the shoulder in Illinois' first preseason scrimmage and saw it pop out of the socket several more times during the season. But Benn still led the team in both receptions [54] and receiving yards [676]. He also had 32 rushes and averaged 28 yards on kickoff returns, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.

Benn did it all while operating like a pitcher coming off the DL. Instead of a pitch count, he had a touch count, as Illinois' coaches mulled how many hits his shoulder could absorb.

There are no such worries this fall.

Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley wants to enhance the passing game, and Benn will be the featured receiver. The run remains Illinois' trademark, and Benn will see more carries out of the backfield.

"It fits perfectly," Benn said. "That's why I came to Illinois, to be The Guy."

Benn underwent surgery on his shoulder after the season and was limited for most of the spring, but he feels 100 percent now.

"I forgot I had surgery," he said.

When Benn studied Locksley's offense as a prep superstar growing up in Washington, D.C., he saw a system that didn't pigeonhole its skill players. The best guys would get the ball a lot, and Benn had little doubt where he would fit in.

At a recent practice, the 6-foot-2, 214-pound Benn frequently lined up in the backfield, taking option pitches from quarterback Juice Williams before rotating back to slot receiver.

"Last year, we kind of spoon-fed him and lined him up and limited a package for him so we could allow him to get on the field early without doing too much thinking," Locksley said. "As he moves up the food chain in terms of our touch chart, obviously we'll do things to find ways to get him to the ball.

"I'd say he'll be one of our top two guys on offense that need to have the ball in his hands."

The departure of star running back Rashard Mendenhall will free up more carries for Benn. And Illinois appears to be much deeper at receiver this season, allowing Locksley to do more with the versatile sophomore.

Locksley likens Benn's athleticism and physical maturity to that of Vernon Davis and Shawne Merriman, two players Locksley recruited to Maryland. He's not the only one marveling at the sophomore.

"I saw it in high school, the things he did. I was amazed," Williams said. "He's a rare talent, so it's always good to have a guy like that on your team."

And not good to be going against him.