Nothing can stop... the Juke of Earl

Now four games into his collegiate career, freshman receiver and punt returner Earl Bennett has yet to taste defeat. On a team that has seen a number of talented freshmen contribute, the Birmingham native has made by far the biggest splash. He is 5-feet, 11-inches, 195 pounds worth of twisting, juking, dervish-like excitement. Just call him "The Juke of Earl."

There's an old joke about Hillary Clinton running into one of her old boyfriends, a grease monkey at a filling station, and renewing old acquaintances. As she and Bill drive away, the joke goes, Bill laughs and asks her, "Aren't you glad you didn't marry that guy? Instead, you married a guy who would become President."

"If I had married that guy," Hillary responds, "he would have become president."

Not to say that Vanderbilt receiver Earl Bennett has that much self-confidence... but a somewhat similar story could be told about him in recruiting. There were voices, he said, who tried to convince him that if he signed with Vanderbilt, he'd be doomed to four years of losing. Others tried to tell him he'd never be able to do the schoolwork.

Bennett says he never bought it. His innate self-confidence told him that if he signed with Vanderbilt, he-- and Vanderbilt-- would be successful.

"I always knew from the day I signed that Vanderbilt could be a contender in the SEC," he says. And he says it with such conviction that you have to believe him.

Now four games into his collegiate career, to the amazement of many, the gifted freshman who signed with the SEC's "lovable losers" has yet to taste defeat. On a team that has seen a number of talented freshmen contribute, the Birmingham native has made by far the biggest splash. He is 5-feet, 11-inches, 195 pounds worth of twisting, juking, dervish-like excitement.

Just call him "The Juke of Earl."

Getting his first college start last Saturday in place of the injured Marlon White, Bennett pulled down 11 Jay Cutler passes for 124 receiving yards, both of which shattered his previous career bests. His performance was also a team high, as the Commodores rolled to their fourth straight win, a 37-13 decision over Richmond.

Twice, Bennett appeared to score the first touchdown of his Vandy career-- but twice, the replay operators ruled "no score." In the third quarter he scooped an 18-yard pass off the end zone turf for an apparent TD, but the all-seeing eyes upstairs reviewed the play and ruled no catch. In the fourth quarter, Bennett made a twisting, tackle-breaking run-after-catch and came close to breaking the plane, but the officials ruled his knee had touched with the ball just shy.

In both cases Bennett was denied, though both times Vandy would score shortly afterwards. But Bennett's eye-popping moves with the ball-- as both a receiver and punt returner-- have made him a fan favorite and a team favorite.

"Earl arrived tonight," Cutler said. "He played a heckuva game. He's been making big catches for us all year, against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Richmond. He's been solid; I mean, no drops."

Bennett has had at least one big play in every game thus far. In Vandy's surprising upset of Wake Forest in the opener, it was the juke move Bennett put on a Demon Deacon defender that turned a short out route into a 28-yard gain, which in turn set up Jeff Jennings' game-winning touchdown run.

Bennett's first actual punt return came in the Arkansas game, and it too was a doozy. With a tackler bearing down on him full force, Bennett caught the ball at the 11 and spun to make the man miss-- then broke two more tacklers along the way to a pretty 15-yard return.

It's that make-people-miss ability that simply can't be taught. Bennett probably has more of it than any Vandy offensive player since Jermaine Johnson of the mid-1990's.


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Anything Bennett might lack in talent, he makes up for with off-field dedication and hard work. Like many of the other true freshmen, he reported to school in the summer and was able to take advantage of the team's involuntary workouts. It was in those summer months that Bennett earned the confidence of Cutler, who would soon come to think of him as a favorite target.

"He picked up the offense really quickly-- really, I was kind of surprised how quickly," Cutler told reporters in August. "Physically he has all the tools it is going to take. He can run very, very well. He loves football, just loves to get out get the job done."

It's safe to say Bennett had more buzz in fall camp than any true freshman in the five years since I've been covering the Commodores. Typically, when the Bobby Johnson staff brings in a player they're excited about, they try to downplay it publicly. But with Bennett, they were almost unable to restrain their glee when describing their newfound weapon.

Strength coach John Sisk raved about Bennett's physical condition. And receivers coach Charlie Fisher was almost giddy.

"Earl Bennett has put the pressure on everyone," Fisher told me privately in fall camp. "We're not going to be able to keep him off the field for very long, because he's so explosive, and he's just done a tremendous job of picking things up."

Trust me, that kind of hype by the coaches for a true freshman is rare-- and as it turns out, not at all unfounded. Four games into his career, Bennett is averaging over a 12-yard gain every time he touches the ball (including pass receptions and punt returns).

You might assume he'd be as flamboyant off the field as he is on it. You'd be wrong.

"He's very mature," says Cutler. "He doesn't really say much. He's not flamboyant or anything. He listens to criticism, takes it in stride, and just wants to get better as a player."

Confident but not cocky, Bennett is, like everyone else, thrilled to be a part of Vandy's amazing joyride.

"I've never been 4-0 for any team since I've been playing football," he says, shrugging. "Not even in high school. It feels good, real good."

And as for his schoolwork?

"School is going real good," he says. "I'm doing really good managing my time so far, so I hope to keep it up."

******

Above photos by Neil Brake, Vanderbilt Athletics.

Earl Bennett vs. Richmond (VM/ Stan Jones)


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