Arrelious Benn is the highest rated player recruited to Illinois in the Ron Zook era. The 6'-2", 225 pounder with tremendous strength and outstanding speed has been considered a top draft choice ever since he enrolled at the UI.
However, a frustrating year marred by injuries and an inconsistent offense that didn't get him the ball raised doubts. Benn caught 54 balls for 676 yards as a freshman and a whopping 67 for 1055 yards last season. But he was limited to just 38 receptions for a meager 490 yards in 2009.
Benn thinks team first, and he is reluctant to offer excuses for his play. But the year did not go well for him or the team.
"My expectations are always high each year in anything I do. We just didn't get it done. Things didn't go the way everyone planned it, the way I planned it. But those things happen."
A high ankle sprain on the third play of the season opener with Missouri set the tone for the year. Benn was to be the focal point of the entire offense. Plays were designed to feature him in both the passing and running games. The other players respected him as the leader and star of the team, so his loss had a devastating emotional impact on their play.
"Yeah, it pretty much did. Juice (Williams) and I are two guys that lead the offense out there, and when I went down it was pretty hard for the team and hard for me. That put the dagger in us a little bit."
No backup plan is as good as the original when the person designed to execute the plan can't perform at peak efficiency. Benn was to be used in four down territory as part of a jumbo backfield. Freshman Justin Green scored two touchdowns on plays originally created for Benn.
"Yeah, that's normally my play. It's okay with me, as long as we get in the endzone with the points. But I'd still have been doing it if my ankle was healthy. I was supposed to do a lot more running, but the backs showed up alot."
Despite an injury that keeps most players on the shelf a minimum of 2-3 weeks, Benn played every game. Even with two concussions, he came back each time. He never let anyone see the pain.
"Injuries happen. I had small minor injuries, but I still played. I got all the snaps in all the games despite the injuries. That's not a concern of mine. That's football. I've got the type of body that's durable for that."
Maybe, but he was less effective running routes against teams determined to double and triple team him.
"Yeah, but that's football. That's something I've got to get around, learn how to maneuver around. It's made me a better route runner. Just finding open holes and stuff.
"We have a lot of receivers, and we have some good guys out of the backfield. I just catch what I can and do what I need to do."
Benn says the subtle changes in the offense brought in by new coordinator Mike Schultz took awhile to learn even though the overall offense was still the same.
"We got more confidence as the season went on. The new style offense wasn't that much of a change, but there were little changes as far as route running and timing of the ball. Running the ball as much as we did, skip blocks, the receiver blocks. But we took care of it."
Was there any lack of trust in the play calls?
"I wouldn't say trust, but it took awhile to get the reps with the new play calling, new style. Knowing how to execute plays we weren't used to in certain situations. But it turned out great. We got good at it. It shows you where we could be at."
No matter how hard a team plays, it must have some lucky breaks along the way to win consistently. Benn says that bad luck was a frequent companion for the Illini this year.
"I'd like to say a lot. We've had some bad luck. It just hasn't been on our side this year. It's kind of hard to stay confident, but you see the true colors of people when the season ends up like this. The type of guys we have around here will keep fighting. Those are the type of guys you want to be around."
Despite his talent and achievements, Benn has scored only 11 touchdowns in three years, 7 receiving, 3 rushing and one on a kickoff return. His latest came to end the first half last Saturday against Fresno State. In typical Benn fashion, he wrestled the ball from a defender and dragged him and the ball into the end zone to complete a 58 yard play.
"Yeah, it gave us momentum coming out for the second half. And I was excited to get in the end zone. It was a great feeling, and I kind of showed it when I threw the ball. But that's football."
Throwing the ball into the bleachers produces a penalty, but it was perhaps fitting that a year's worth of frustrations came out on that one play.
"I've never done anything like that before. I'd like to say I apologize if I offended anyone. That's not how Coach Zook teaches us. That's not something I plan to ever do again. Football is supposed to be fun, but I still want to apologize."
The Washington, D.C. product wasn't the only one thrilled about the touchdown. His brother Trulon Henry is being recruited by Illinois, and he was watching from a short distance away.
"I was excited to watch him score the touchdown. I was in back of the glass under the stands. I haven't gotten to see him play much."
"Rejus" has matured as a person and player in his three years as an Illini.
"I've grown a lot as a person. One thing I know. I know what it feels like to win, and I know what it feels like to lose. Coming here I knew how to grind. I had a great work ethic. But the types of seasons we've had have even made my work ethic skyrocket."
Benn treated Senior Day with special interest. Whether he was also seeing it as his last Illini game, his first thoughts were for his friends who are graduating.
"It's real important. Without those guys, I wouldn't be here. That's the guys that recruited me to come here."
He is on line to graduate next December. What is his time frame for deciding about whether to stay or enter the NFL draft?
"That's a decision I'll make down the road. I'm finishing up finals. After that, I'll probably make a decision whether I will want to come out or not. It will be based on whether I want to go or get my degree. I'll think about it first. I'm not leaning any way right now. I've got to do what's best for me.
"The NFL's gonna be there. College is still here, so I could get my degree. I don't yet know what I'm gonna do."
His brother is considering Illinois strongly and would love a chance to play a year with him. And his mother would like to see him stay. But he is his own man.
"My mom's gonna speak her opinion, as any mother is gonna do to advise me about my education."
Unlike most high school superstars, Benn wanted to help rebuild a program rather than attend a school that was constantly among the elite. He has helped the Illini to a Rose Bowl, but progress has stagnated some since.
"Any time you go into a situation like this, you never want to end up like this. But you take it in stride."
If this is his swan song, if we have seen the last of Arrelious Benn in an Illinois uniform, then we must remember how special he is as a person as well as a player. He has raised the stature of the Illini program. And he has represented the UI well on and off the field.
It is good to know he is happy with his decision to attend Illinois.
"I've accomplished alot since I've been here. I'm glad I came here. It's one of the best decisions I've made in my life. I don't regret anything."