Benn Leads Improving Group of Receivers

In the past, Illinois' receiving corps was average on its best day. It lacked speed, hands and playmaking ability. But with the addition of one special freshman, a brand new receivers coach and continued development from players who now have played a bunch of football, this group finally may begin to emerge.

Ever notice how every lineup gets better when you put a home run hitter in the three or four hole? All of a sudden everyone looks better. Team batting average goes way up. And so does the win total.

Alas, such could be the case with the Illinois receiving corps, which last spring welcomed its home run hitter. And with that big basher – spectacular freshman Arrelious Benn – could come improvements all the way around.

Said coach Ron Zook: "He is everything we thought he'd be. We don't need to put any extra pressure on the guy, but, just wait until everyone sees him."

Everyone did see Benn during the spring game, in which he got deep for an early pass, took a handoff and scored a 31-yard touchdown on a running play and made a highlight reel catch while getting drilled in midair late in the game. With the home run threat in place, hopes are that the overall corps improves immensely.

WIDE RECEIVERS: We'll break it down by wideouts and tight ends rather than inside receivers and outside receivers because all of these guys will be moved around. And even though he is just a freshman, the look has to begin with Benn (6-2, 215), who has the size of a linebacker, the speed of a cornerback and the grace, body control and soft hands of the great, great receivers in the game. Already, he and quarterback Juice Williams have developed a chemistry that will be a sight for sore Illini eyes.

In the spring, Benn played in the slot, but look for him to move all around. Ultimately, I think he winds up outside, but for now, will play all over. If he is inside, the two outside starters could be junior Kyle Hudson (5-11, 166) and sophomore Joe Morgan (6-2, 185), another potential star. If it plays out like that, Illinois will have its fastest receiving corps in years. Benn and Morgan are tall, athletic burners and Hudson much quicker than you would think.

If Morgan gets into the flow, he could be tremendous. Last year, being away from home for the first time and not playing much worked on him mentally. But coaches believe that is behind him now and expect big things. Hudson is quick and reliable, but still must play stronger. The late game fumble against Ohio can't happen. If Hudson can get off jams and play with a little more physical nature, this is some trio.

Three other key players to watch are seniors DaJuan Warren (6-2, 210) and Frank Lenti, Jr. (6-2, 189) and sophomore Chris James (6-0, 185). None of the three are particularly fast, but each have their strengths. Warren has relatively good hands, runs good routes and has played in enough Big Ten games that he won't be intimidated. He also throws option passes, runs the ball and is very versatile. Lenti is as fundamentally perfect as a receiver can be; outstanding routes, great hands, and is a gamer. Just very limited athleticially.

James isn't fast either, but is much quicker than the other two and therefore seems to play faster. He also has phenomenal hands and is as good a competitor as there is on the team. He will fight for a starting job as well.

After Derrick McPhearson and Jody Ellis were dismissed from the team and Jacob Willis had academic difficulty in the spring, cornerback Dere Hicks (5-10, 171) moved to offense and showed flashes, although he is not ready. And once heralded recruit Marques Wilkins (6-0. 190), expected to move to defense, stayed on offense and had a better spring than expected.

Yet, with apologies to McPhearson, Ellis and Willis, the biggest blow to the receiving corps was 6-foot-4 super recruit Anthony Morris not making it into school. Coaches were salivating at the thought of pairing he and Benn together for many years.

TIGHT END: This sophomore combination of receiver in Jeff Cumberland (6-5, 244) and blocker Michael Hoomanawanui (6-5, 261) in time will be as good as any in the Big Ten. Maybe sooner rather than later. Coaches love both guys. Cumberland will consistently run by linebackers and Hoo man will smash defensive ends on running plays.

Coaches want Hoo man more involved in the passing game and Cumberland has to get more consistent. On a team that dropped a boatload of passes, his bobble against Indiana and dropped touchdown pass against Wisconsin were two of the biggest plays of the year.

Last year, when Illinois needed a third tight end to block, coaches moved Michael Nabolotny over and he did a terrific job. The 6-5 junior is now up to 304 pounds and slated to provide offensive line depth, but don't be surprised to see him as a third tight end some as well.

Overall, this unit is getting better, but far from where it needs to be. Losing Morris was critical. A key factor is how well Morgan develops. With most of the others, you sort of know what you've got.

ZOOK QUOTE: "Regis (Benn) makes us better, but we have other guys coming around. I love CJ and Frank Lenti, two guys who get after it. And Joe Morgan has a real chance. This group is improving."

FRANGIE TAKE: The Morris thing was devastating if he was as good as Mike Locksley told me he was. I really like Chris James and am intrigued with Morgan because he is 6-2 and really fast. But I still think this is a real position of need in recruiting. You know what you've got in Benn, so Morgan is the X-factor – if he can stretch defenses, opening underneath routes for Benn, CJ, others, then look out.

Next position: Running Backs.

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