Poise and Talent: Meet Arrelious Benn

How often can a high school senior graduate early, enter a university a long way from home and excel on the football field right out of the gate? Rarely at best. But if recently completed spring practice is any indication, it is about to happen, and then some, with Illinois' Arrelious Benn. ___________________________________________________

Arrelious Benn is not a typical college freshman. Graduating early from high school so he could enter Illinois for the spring semester to get a head start on college academics and football, Benn is not overwhelmed by all the changes in his life. If anything, he is adapting better than anyone had a right to expect.

Arrelious (yes, he wishes to be called Arrelious instead of his nicknames "Rejus" and "AB") was a consensus All-American out of Dunbar High School in Washington, D. C. He was ranked the second best wide receiver in the country and was named Gatorade Player of the Year for D. C. He gained over 1,000 receiving yards each of his last two seasons and also ran the ball for three touchdowns and an average of 9 yards per carry his senior year. He could have attended any college in the country, but he chose Illinois.

Benn is bigger and stronger than most receivers, standing 6'-2" and weighing 210 pounds of solid muscle. He has the strength and aggressiveness to break contain and fight defenders for passes and the speed and shiftiness of a much smaller man. But upon meeting him, the first thing you notice is his intelligence, brightness and inner peace.

And confidence.

"I expected to come in and make an instant impact," he said.

Illinois needs a go-to player who can make plays under pressure. Arrelious Benn says the things one expects an impact player to say.

"I chose Illinois because it's a school where I felt comfortable," he said. "I felt anywhere I went I would have a big impact and a chance to compete early. I felt comfortable with Coach Zook and the other D. C. guys on the team. And they ran my style of offense and had a tremendous quarterback in Juice Williams. The offensive coordinator, Coach (Mike) Locksley, I'm very close with. I knew I could trust him to give me the ball."

Coach Zook gave him the ball plenty during the recently completed spring practice, and Benn seems to thrive on the work. Besides his receiver duties, Arrelious receives pitchouts on options and reverses and is a strong candidate for the punt return and kickoff return jobs.

In the spring game, which capped a whirlwind 15 days for Benn and the Illini, the freshman had five catches for over 100 yards and a 30-plus yard touchdown run. And when it was over, fans and coaches and teammates and members of the media were buzzing about the fabulous frosh.

"I'm pretty happy with what I've been doing," he said. "I'm playing a big role, I'm moving with the first team offense some, so I think I'm doing pretty well. I'm comfortable with the role I'm playing. As far as getting the ball out of the backfield, catching passes and stuff, I'm getting the ball a lot so I feel comfortable with that. We kind of had a similar style of offense in high school."

What adjustment problems have you had since entering college?

"The weather has taken my by surprise, but everything else is just about the way I thought it would be. My biggest adjustment is waking up at 6:00am, working out and then coming back after classes for meetings and practices.

"Campus life is good, I just had to work through it. When I first got here everything was going so fast with school and football, but I adapted to it pretty well. (The other guys) knew the offense better, but now we're at the same level."

Arrelious demonstrated his self-confidence by saying, "I feel no pressure. I like challenges. Everybody is expecting me to do things, but I just take it day by day and do what I'm supposed to do and try not to do too much."

He is glad he enrolled early and recommends it for others.

"I just wanted to get a head start and get acclimated fast because going to the next level and learning the offense is a big thing, and I wanted to get a jump on that. I can get acclimated with classes and stuff and be ready for the season. I'm very happy I came early. I recommend graduating and coming in early. It's just real beneficial as far as school and football. I know it would be pretty hard for me to come in in August. I'm pretty sure I'd be behind everyone else."

Now he not only is in the mix, he is a starter. And a future star.

"With the early jump, I'll be like a redshirt freshman this fall. I know the offense, I know how things go, so now I can tell the incoming guys what to do, what they can expect when they get here."

Arrelious can be a perfectionist. In our brief interview, he mentioned his "mistakes" several times. He says he learns best from his own mistakes, but Coach Zook tries to prevent Benn from getting too discouraged by his imperfections.

"Coach Zook tells me not to be so hard on myself. He knows when I'm hard on myself. He says my time is gonna come, just take it day by day. I'm going good and am ahead of a lot of guys who've been through this before.

"Sometimes I'm hard on myself because that's the type of person I am. I'm just very competitive. I'm trying to get out of the habit of being so hard on myself."

Speaking of Coach Zook, what is it about him that attracted Benn to Illinois?

"He's a real comfortable guy. He's a guy you just fall in love with, even when you don't know him well. You just love him, man. He's a guy you can relate to. He's not like a coach who's only about football. Sometimes you have to take a break from football. He's the type of guy you can relate to outside of football. That's the type of guy I wanted to be around."

It must also be comforting to see friend and high school mate Vontae Davis on campus.

"Yeah, he's a guy I relate to. We've known each other since we were in diapers. So he was a big factor in the decision why I came. He's helped me out a lot. He's on the other side of the ball, so it wouldn't make that much difference about me coming here. It would have been hard for me to be here without someone to relate to, but not that much."

Nate Bussey is another Dunbar teammate who will be an entering freshman safety this fall.

"Nate will do well because he's an athlete and he's going to come in and compete for a spot. Hopefully, he'll adapt quickly just like I did."

It is important for receivers and quarterbacks to work out together to improve the timing of their pass plays. How have he and Juice Williams done together?

"It's gone pretty well. He's a guy who's been through the same things I went through. We've spent a lot of time together getting the timing right. He's teaching me the offense. We have late nights in the play book."

Has the velocity of Juice's throws surprised him?

"Yeah, he caught me by surprise sometimes. But I'm finally getting adapted well to his passes, and he's trying to put a little touch on it, and his accuracy is a little better. No, I've never played with anyone like that before."

Receivers have an important role to play as downfield blockers. How is the blocking coming along?

"My blocking is coming along well. I feel as though I can be one of the better blockers among the receivers on the team."

Catching punts can also be a challenge for those unaccustomed to the longer, higher kicks in college ball and how their trajectories are altered by swirling winds.

"Yes, it took me awhile to adjust to it. But I think I'm doing ok with it now. The key is repetition."

After a spectacular spring, has he set any goals for the fall?

"I haven't really set my goals yet for this fall, but I'm pretty sure they're going to be big goals. I just want to be an impact player right away from the opening game against Missouri. Right now, my goal is just learning the offense and getting comfortable with it.

"That first game, coming out of the tunnel, I'll be a little rattled. I get butterflies before every game. If you don't get those there's something wrong with you. I know it's going to be a big challenge, a big shock for me. But I don't pay attention too much to the crowd. I make my plays and do the stuff I need to do.

"I want to try to win games and go to a bowl game. I'm pretty high on myself sometimes but I'll just take it game by game and try to be an impact player."

Do you do a lot of talking to opponents on the field?

"I'm not a talker. I just let my game do the talking."

What does he think of the other Illini receivers?

"Kyle Hudson has a nice style, but all the receivers have their own little talents and they're going to help out this year."

OK, with all the football in your life right now, how is the school work coming along?

"The workload can get hard sometimes, and you have to put in a lot of time. But other than that, things are smooth. I'm studying Sports Management and taking 14 hours this semester. I will then enroll in summer school and work out with the team."

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