June 05, 2009
Not that he needs it -- barring catastrophic injury, the guy's a multimillionaire this time next year -- but I have to admit: When ESPN ended its countdown of the top-30 players in the Big Ten with Arrelious Benn at the top, my reaction was along the lines of, "Yeah, I remember that guy." Which is roughly the same thought I had when I opened a new copy of Athlon's annual national preview this week and saw Benn listed as a first-team All-American.
That's strange, because I agree on both counts: Other than maybe Dez Bryant, Benn is easily the first receiver I'd pick from the returning crop this fall. In basically every way I can think of, Benn is the real thing, an unusually blessed recruit who's lived up to nearly every ounce of the hype through two years. It is very weird, than, that he descended so far beneath the radar the last two months of last season, lost amid the heavy breathing for Bryant, Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Julio Jones, Jeremy Maclin, Oklahoma-Texas banners, Brandon Carter's Legion of Doom getup and, most fatally, his own team's steady fade from the national consciousness after midseason. As Illinois limped to the finish, perhaps the most physically imposing receiver in recent memory turned into the forgotten man outside of his immediate vicinity.
It's an interesting phenomenon (but a verifiable one; I've asked around.) On paper, it's all there: Benn certainly has the stats (67 catches, 1,000-plus yards, five 100-yard receiving games last year, with 24 catches of at least 25 yards in two years). Even Juice Williams, somehow, has bona fide numbers that refute my certainty in his incompetence as a passer. (Not to get all Simmons-y here, but my argument against Williams' arm is like Herc's against Marlo in The Wire: "I know he's a drug dealer. I can't prove it or nothing. But I know." Juice Williams, while greatly improved, is not an accurate quarterback. (He is also not, to my knowledge, a drug dealer.) Some things you know, even if they won't hold up in court.) The running game, despite its complete lack of a central star, was alright -- 38th nationally for a team that gained more yards (while allowing less) and scored more points than its Rose Bowl-bound predecessor.
But the '08 team didn't go to the Rose Bowl, or any bowl; it was held to 20 points or less in four losses over the last five games, one of them against Western Michigan. Something about the Illini, something baffling and unquantifiable, was missing last year. For all his big play ability, the creeping malaise kept Benn out of the end zone: He only caught three touchdowns, two against Penn State, and none when the point totals dried up in November. (Though the yardage totals didn't dry up, oddly. Everything about the '08 Illini was odd.) He only had two receiving touchdowns as a dynamic freshman.
It has to be Juice's fault. Or better yet, Ron Zook's. But, assuming Benn's on his last tour in Champaign, this fall is the time to keep him the spotlight, to prove that he doesn't just look the part. I think Illinois and probably Big Ten fans know, and the rest of us are aware. Still, no one's gotten his money's worth yet.