"I'm really not sure where his best potential is," said deLaurentis. "Right now he can play either way. He's very explosive off the ball, very quick off the ball. Defensively, he gets a jump, he's got real good technique and, of course, good foot speed. Offensively, he's got good pad leverage he comes off nice, low and even. He brings tremendous power with him when he pulls. He's going to have to learn a lot about pass techniques, obviously, we're not as sophisticated as at the college level. So he'll have a lot of learning to do there. I don't know what they want to do with him, but I think he could play either way."
Benedict earned all-American honors as an offensive lineman, but his speed and quickness off the ball might better serve at defensive tackle.
"Heath is your consummate lineman," said deLaurentis. "Besides being big and strong, he's very quick. He came back to preseason camp his senior year weighing 297 and ran a 4.85."
Benedict is lighter and "a step faster" now, but he's likely to add muscle mass with intense weight training. He should also find the UT training table more nutritional and palatable than prep school fare.
"Now he's probably 275-280," said deLaurentis. "He'll get bigger, you know, you're away at boarding school I don't know if he thinks the food is all that good. And he's active and he trims down and loses weight, but he's back into lifting now so he'll start getting big again."
Weight training hasn't always been a high priority for Benedict, and so, he has some catching up to do in the strength department. Still he has excellent natural strength that he ought to be able to easily augment. Benedict's current bench press of 325 looks more impressive when you consider that he virtually disdained weight training until a promising pitching career came apart when he was just a sophomore.
"He's got fair strength right now," deLaurentis stated. "Up until last year he was being scouted by the pros as a pitcher so he didn't do a lot of lifting. As a sophomore he had elbow surgery and as the doctor explained it to him: pitching a baseball is not normal and some people can last and some can't. He developed bone spurs on his elbow, and so, as of last year his pitching was done. Last summer was the first one that he really lifted."
Benedict had bone spurs removed after this freshman year and it became evident his arm couldn't take the stress of throwing a baseball over a career. Instead of letting the setback overwhelm him, Benedict threw himself headlong into football and made a name for himself with a solid junior season.
"There's a guy here in New Jersey named Dennis McCarthy and he has a big time scouting service," deLaurentis explained. "He's got over 150 college clients and Heath was on the first page of his book and that got him a lot of attention. He had 28 full scholarship offers. His finalists were Tennessee, Nebraska, Miami, South Carolina and Florida State."
Benedict had 25 solo tackles, a ton of assists, two fumble recoveries, five sacks, a blocked punt and a fumble, which he picked up and returned for a touchdown, during a 5-3 campaign for the Peddie School located in Hightstown, N.J. Though he only played in 17 total games as junior and senior, Benedict did face some good competition.
"A lot of people don't realize that at prep schools we go by the same age rules as the state," said deLaurentis who has been at the Peddie School's helm for five years. "But we try to get a lot of kids to repeat, if they're young enough, and then a lot of schools take PGs, also, that's post graduates who have an extra year. So you're usually playing some older kids. It's pretty good football."
During his senior season, Benedict helped lead the Falcons to an 8-1 mark along with the league and state prep school titles. He had 31 solo tackles, eight sacks, a blocked punt and a blocked PAT in nine games. He was also a dominate force at guard and was named to the play that position in the U.S. Army National High School All-Star Game held in San Antonio, Texas, earlier this year. Benedict played at offensive tackle as a junior with outstanding results, but his speed and big-play ability on defense makes him an intriguing prospect at tackle where his ability to penetrate compromises an offense at the point of attack.
"He played a defensive tackle 3-technique (on guard's inside shoulder)," said deLaurentis. " We built a lot of defensive schemes around Heath in the middle. Coupled with his speed, his ability to anticipate is his greatest attribute. He's generally beating the offensive linemen off the ball."
That ability to get off with the snap was displayed on special teams last year when he blocked a punt, recovered the ball on a bounce and returned it to the 1 yard-line.
The play was described by deLaurentis as follows: "He blocked a punt he went right through the kicker and the kicker was out of the picture, so one of the protectors turned and started to race him, but the thing that you can notice of film is that Heath looked back and positioned his body to protect the ball with his body in front of the kid. He couldn't have gotten to it if he wanted to without running all the way around Heath. Now that's pretty smart football."
The veteran coach doesn't throw compliments around recklessly, so when he says Benedict is a special football talent, one tends to pay attention.
"He's a great kid," said deLaurentis. "He has a great attitude. He's the best player I've ever coached. You rarely come across those kind of guys, they're few and far between."
That's why deLaurentis, who has been the Falcons head coach for five years, thinks Benedict has a chance to become a four-year contributor, if not starter, at Tennessee.
"Depending on the injury situation he might play next year," he opined. "I don't think they want to do that, I think they want to school him and bring him along. I don't know if they're planning on redshirting him, but if they do, I think they could get four good years out of him."
The competition of Nebraska, Miami and Florida State was a Who's Who of college football, but the toughest contender for Benedict's signature was probably South Carolina, the state he calls home when he's not at school. Ironically, he Vols won the recruiting war because of the family atmosphere Benedict felt while visiting the campus.
"I think for some reason he just felt very comfortable there," said deLaurentis. "He felt comfortable with kids, he felt comfortable with the atmosphere. Of course, the facilities are phenomenal, but it was just he feeling of comfort he got from the other players and the atmosphere."
Two of the players Benedict became comfortable with are Class of 2002 teammates James Wilhoit of Hendersonville, Tenn., and Rob Smith of Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. The trio played as on the same team at the U.S. all-star game and Benedict and Thomas played side-by-side on the offensive line. The three have stayed in close contact and are holding a reunion this weekend at Benedict's home in Greer, S.C., where Smith and Wilhoit will drive down together.
Once there the awesome threesome will spend time talking about the recent past and the near future. They'll share, dream and laugh, and savor the grandeur of being high school kings before entering a college world as unproven buck privates. All of this the all-Americans — from Tennessee, Kentucky and New Jersey — will do while getting the grand tour of the town of Greer in South Carolina.
That's a good sign for Tennessee football because it's hard enough to get three all-Americans in one class, much less one car or the same page. Perhaps this intrepid trio can help drive the Vols to another national title along the way.