December 16, 2009
Here's how much respect scouts have for Arrelious Benn's raw talent: Off by far the least productive season of his three-year college career, mired in obscurity on the worst passing offense on quite possibly the worst team in the Big Ten, Benn is still considered a probable first-rounder and one of the top three or four receivers in April's draft, which he will officially enter later today. Rare is the talent that can ultimately produce so little -- just seven receiving touchdowns in three years, four of them in losses -- and still go on dripping with such tantalizing potential.
Equally rare, apparently, is Ron Zook's ability to waste such potential, which in just a few years has wreaked untold havoc on an otherwise dominant program at Florida and a roster as stocked as Illinois has seen or is likely to see again in decades. By all rights, this should have been a banner year for the Illini offense, led by a four-year starter at quarterback and a threat on the outside, Benn, that most offensive coordinators would kill for. Instead, Juice Williams reverted to his erratic freshman self and was benched by midseason as the Illini lost their first six games against teams that weren't Illinois State. Amidst the chaos at quarterback, Benn's production shriveled from 67 catches for more than 1,000 yards in 2008, the second-best number in the conference, to just 38 grabs for 490 yards this fall, dropping him behind such luminaries as Damarlo Belcher, Aaron Valentin and Graham Zug on the conference list. From there, he was lucky to earn an honorable mention nod on the All-Big Ten team, which seems more like a nod to the preseason hype as the best player in the league than anything else.
With that kind of exit, there's no doubt Benn's high profile tenure in Champaign will be remembered as a relatively low-yield disappointment, but it's not certain at all whether that will fall on Benn himself or on some combination of those well-worn targets, Juice and Zook. That verdict may depend on how well Benn acquits himself at the next level -- if he goes early and fulfills that promise, then clearly he was a victim of the incompetence around him at Illinois. For his sake, let's just hope he doesn't go to a team that really needs someone to take its offense to another level.