Ja’Whaun Bentley is at his best when he’s coming downhill and hitting ball-carriers with such ferocity that not only do they feel it but he does too.
So if the middle linebacker is feeling 100-percent, then that’s not a good thing. He wants to ache after games, that way he knows he’s been effective. And in the first two outings this season, he’s been so, collecting 16 tackles, one for a loss and forcing two fumbles and nearly a third.
“He runs through people and he has his eyes up, he’s tackling the ball,” co-defensive coordinator Nick Holt said after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s a big, big, big man who’s playing angry lately. He’s violent and I love him.”
Bentley embraces the violence, especially now, considering he says he’s in the best shape of his career. The 6-foot-2 senior is playing at 253 pounds, down probably 10, maybe more, from last season when injuries — he was coming back from ACL surgery the year before — kept him from being as conditioned as he could be. Teammates have noticed that Bentley’s moving well and attacking.
“I see textbook and old-fashion (hard-nosed style),” freshman Cornel Jones said. “But I see a lot of new things, like that he’s a big guy but so fast on his feet, probably one of the fastest ‘backers we do have. He’s able to run sideline-to-sideline.”
Bentley says he’s always ready to play, but clearly his health was bothering him last season. He wasn’t the player he wanted to be, not able to find his fits quickly enough to be dominant in the middle of Purdue’s defense. But that’s not the case any longer, as he’s been the enforcer he desires. He wants to fly into holes and hit the opponent.
“It’s been a big emphasis for me personally and then react to the pass game,” Bentley said. “But I feel like I’ve done well the first two weeks.”
It’s hard to argue with results. Against Louisville in the opener, Bentley popped Louisville running back Jeremy Smith on the goal line, the force of the hit popping the football loose, and the Boilermakers recovered it, a turnover that helped keep them in the game.
And Bentley had a second forced fumble, when he raced into a play downfield to strip a ball away. A third nearly came when he pulled the ball away on the goal line, but officials ruled — and replay didn’t overturn — that Reggie Bonnafon had scored first.
Bentley says he, and the rest of the defense, has worked to turn the ball over, and it has five forced fumbles in two games.
“When you’re going through team periods, practicing raking at the ball or punching the ball out when nobody is paying attention,” he said. “Even when a play is over, just practicing and offensive players get annoyed with it. But that’s something that you have to practice and clearly I reap the benefits from it, so I’m going to keep doing it.”
It’s helped to give the Boilermakers a defensive identity, one of a hard-hitting, swarming group.
“He’s played really good and played physical,” Holt said. “He’s playing like a big-time linebacker and that’s what I think he is. And that’s what I’m sure he aspires to be. He needs to play like that for us and he is; he’s not perfect, nobody is, but he’s doing a really good job.”
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