Arrelious Benn has always been special. A five-star prospect out of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., "Rejus" exploded on the scene as a freshman at Illinois with 54 catches for 676 yards and two touchdowns plus 158 yards rushing and a kickoff return touchdown. He improved those stats to 67 catches for 1055 yards and three touchdowns plus two more touchdowns on rushing attempts.
Benn was named Big Ten Freshman Of The Year in 2007. He was a first team All-Big 10 selection last fall and a fourth team All-American. He was named Illinois team MVP. Scout.com calls him the 2nd best returning receiver in the country for 2009 and the 38th best player in college football.
But none of these accolades cause him to rest on his laurels. Benn is one of the hardest workers on the Illini team on the field and in the weight room. He is unselfish to a fault and has improved his leadership skills because his first and foremost goal is helping Illinois win. He is simply one of the best football players ever to don an Illini uniform.
Speculation persists Benn will forego his senior season and apply for the NFL draft next spring. But he is too humble, wise and team oriented to encourage those possibilities at this time.
"I think that's selfish for the team and teammates. I think it's selfish towards yourself."
NFL draft expert Mel Kiper ranks Benn high on his list of potential 2010 first round draftees. But he is not focused on that.
"It's a compliment and a blessing to be there. You work hard for it. Mel Kiper has seen a lot of players, and for him to speak that highly of me is great. But at the same time I'm focused on here right now. If I want to make that decision with my family and Coach Zook down the road, then I will. But I'm happy here."
Benn has made definite improvement in his two plus years on campus.
"The game speed and reading the defense on the run. That's one of my biggest things is reading the defense on the run and knowing how to run certain routes depending on how the defense is playing."
He has also shown definite leadership skills recently. At the Spring Game, freshman receiver Jack Ramsey stopped a long sideline route short, and the ball flew past him. Benn took him aside to explain the correct approach. He understands and accepts his expanded role.
"I like it. The guys look up to me as somebody who's always gonna step up and say the word. I kind of took that role in the off season this year. I'm not set out to be the only leader, anybody can be a leader. We just need somebody out there who will say something that's gonna lead us. Plus number one, I want to win. That's first."
He realizes he is in the spotlight, and the younger players look up to him. He accepts the awesome responsibility that entails.
"Oh yeah, without a doubt. The young guys listen to you. You have to be a leader on and off the field. You can't let up. Their eyes are on you."
Benn is also becoming an eloquent spokesman for the Illini team. He thinks highly of the offense's potential.
"The offense is doing pretty good. We're in a learning process picking up new plays. Little twists. Similar to what we ran last year, but a little different. We have a lot of weapons at the different positions, and Juice (Williams) is gonna lead us.
"Coach (Mike) Schultz has had a lot of impact on the offense. He's a great coach, a fun guy to be around. It's all about winning. No matter how we get it done, as long as we have more points than the opposing team.
"I don't know yet how he'll call the offense. I'm gonna have to wait and see, and so is he when the season comes."
Benn and Juice have worked closely together to develop their timing on passes, and they are both stepping up to lead the team. Benn has high praise for his quarterback.
"Juice looks better than ever. He's a different person. He acts different towards approaching the game. He's a leader in the locker room. We both came together as leaders, and we're taking those steps right now."
The 6'-2", 220 pounder can speak about the Illini defense with equal excitement.
"The defense has made progress. We've been having these competitions. I think (Ron) Zook's been cheating. He's a defensive guy. It's all fun. We have a lot of young guys stepping up on both sides of the ball. We have guys on defense who want to learn, soak up everything and just get on the field and play."
Since Benn frequently battles linebackers, he is qualified to speak on the progress of fellow five-star athlete Martez Wilson at middle linebacker.
"Martez seems like a different person from the way he was the previous two years. He's playing faster, he's wanting to do it more. He's more focused, more mature. He's putting in the extra work. He's doing all the things he needed to do to be better. He's gonna come out and lead the defense, I believe.
"There was a lot of pressure last year. You're gonna have that sometimes. Taking the role of J Leman, followed by Brit, you're gonna have that type of pressure. He has more pressure than he's ever had coming into the season this year. But I think he can handle it better now."
One possible factor that might encourage Benn to return for his senior season is whether his brother enrolls at Illinois next year.
"My brother (Trulon Henry, a linebacker) is going back to College Of Dupage. And then hopefully he will be here. I've been putting in the good word."
Benn is confident the frustrations of last year's 5-7 season are now a distant memory and will not be repeated in 2009.
"Being home through the bowl season hurt. We had a great team last year. We just didn't get the little things to put us in a position where we needed to be. A lot of guys are hungry. A lot of guys are willing to put in the extra work. There's a lot of competing on both sides of the ball. We're gonna take it on into the season."