The fifth-year senior, who has had a front row seat to the program's growth within the Big 12, says that maturation process is much the same as what the linebackers experienced this spring. West Virginia is in a mix of rebuild and reload at the position, though nowhere near as much as it was last season when it had to replace three starters. The similarities are that, with more established depth, the Mountaineers continue to roll in players with years in the program.
Benton, a starter for the second consecutive season, is one of two listed first-teamers (along with Hodari Christian) with five years at WVU. Fellow senior Xavier Preston has played in 23 games the past two seasons, biding his time and remaining patient even after his impressive play as a true freshman in 2014 raised significant expectations. Preston now has more than 275 defensive snaps logged, including a carer-best 43 versus BYU last season. Sophomore Adam Hensley broke into the Gold-Blue spring game two-deep, working at outside 'backer alongside Brenden Ferns, the promising redshirt freshman who was a four-star recruit and rated as the nation's seventh best at the position in the 2016 class but missed last year with a torn ACL.
Add in David Long, who made 63 tackles last season as a true freshman - coordinator Tony Gibson calls him arguably the best young player he has ever coached - and redshirt freshmen Logan Thimons and Zach Sandwisch, among others, and West Virginia has the numbers and firepower to continue to reload, rather than being forced into a true rebuild. At the end of spring, the starters were Long, Benton and Christian, with Thimons, Ferns and Hensley taking the majority of the second-team snaps.
"I'm seeing a lot of effort," said Benton, the unequivocal vocal leader of the unit. "They are getting past that earning curve. There's that point in everybody's college career where you start thinking too much and it's not allowing you to play as fast and those young guys have finally gotten past that stage and are able to just play fast and make plays. Everything else we can coach and get fixed up. You can't coach effort and that's one thing those guys have been showing is effort. I'm excited to see how they develop more this summer.
"We have a lot of guys who have to step up and take more reps so getting that technique down as they get tired and take more reps will be something we are working on, but the fight and the fire I am seeing from those guys is something I am really excited about."
To its credit, West Virginia's defense largely outperformed the offense in the Gold-Blue game, though not to the extent the scoring system indicated. Gibson's side held the offense to just two touchdowns, not counting the one thrown in the final few minutes when NFL quarterback Geno Smith took the field. The offense, over 70-plus plays, managed 300 yards passing and just 116 rushing, the 416 being far less than last season's 485.5 average for the offense against opposing starting units. And the 14 points, though the offense wasn't operating at full throttle, is less than half of WVU's 31.2 average from last season, albeit in a shortened version of a game.
"I think what that shows is that we were able to keep them from getting in the end zone," said Benton, who finished with one of the team's three sacks in the game. "I think that was one of the biggest keys. We wanted to make sure we kept those guys from getting in and limit points. That's one of our goals this spring. We did a pretty good job of that. They had some plays that we will go back and watch. For the most part we did a pretty good job."
For his part, Benton focused on hand placement and strength in fending off blocks through the 15 spring sessions. His freedom of movement is a key this fall, especially in a mike position that is often stressed from the outside linebackers having to cover receivers and tight ends.
"I wanted to work my hands, make sure I can get on and off blocks quickly," he said. "I wanted to be able to dissect plays faster and get a better understanding of what everybody is doing. I'm telling everybody to play fast, play fast. Those times when they may not know exactly what is going on, I need to be able to get everybody in position and be able to make sure everybody understands what is going on so everybody can play fast. That's one of the biggest things I have been working on."