Exclusive with the Nation’s Best WR Arrelious “Rejus” Benn

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The University of Illinois Wide Receiving Corps will be among the best in College Football this year. In this four part series, Paul M. Banks interviews and profiles each of the top four Illini pass catching threats.

Part 4: Arrelious “Rejus” Benn

Talk about saving the best for last- in the final installment of my interview/profiles of the stellar University of Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiving corp, I profile Arrelious ‘Rejus’ Benn. He’s by far the best Illini receiver in a generation. The 6’2”, 214 lb darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate has his share of accolades and hardware including:

•    Maxwell Award Candidate
•    Biletnikoff Award Candidate
•    Preseason Third-Team All-American (Athlon)
•    Preseason First-Team All-Big Ten (Athlon)
•    Named Big Ten’s Fastest Receiver (The Sporting News)
•    Rated the No. 20 player in the nation (The Sporting News)
•    Rated the No. 1 wide receiver in the Big Ten (The Sporting News)
•    2007 Big Ten Freshman of the Year
•    2007 Freshman All-American

Almost everyone knows him as Arrelious, but people really close to him call him Rejus. “It’s a nickname that started when I was younger, my father’s nickname was Redus and his real name was Arrelious, so I’m named after him,” Benn said. No word yet if anyone in Rejus’s family is named Kathie Lee (hey hey…thanks I just got in from Champaign-Urbana and boy are my arms tired).

Rejus is from Washington D.C. and prepped at Dunbar, in one of the District’s roughest neighborhoods. He’s come a long way to get here and spoke about the difference between a small town in Central Illinois and the nation’s capital. “It’s been slow, but I like it. D. C. is fast, but it’s always good to get away from the city, and find yourself and just focus on what you need to do…Being in Champaign has really matured me into the person I am and I’ve seen a lot of things from both sides, being in the city and in a place like Champaign.” Despite the distance, his family often makes the trek to see him play. “I always have my mom and younger brothers coming to some games.”dsc026871

Illinois’ schedule will extend much longer this season as bye weeks will be more frequent, and much later, until the regular season concludes with a December 5th home date against Fresno St. “I’m the kind of guy who likes to go out there in the cold and sweat. Get covered with scarves around my arm, I like just going out there and playing the game, and I hope it snows,” Benn said about the Illini’s adjusted schedule, which is an attempt to be much crisper and ready for a bowl game- should they qualify.

Benn has mid 4.4 speed, but still includes speed in his list of what he feels he needs to improve upon; which is pretty much everything: route-running, pass-catching, the whole package as he puts it. So what about his greatest strength? “For me to be able to do all the things I can do, at my size, I’m not your typical receiver,” Rejus answered. And his game has drawn comparisons to one of the best in the business right now. “For me to labeled as the next Anquan Boldin would be a tremendous complement.”dsc02693

And you’ll see Benn this fall on special teams, not just in the offense. “That’s my thing, I like to return kicks. Jarrod Fayson, he’s gonna take care of the punt returns, and I’ll get back there some in case he needs a blow. Mostly though, I’ll be doing kickoffs,”  Rejus said.

Benn currently projects as a top ten, maybe even top 5 NFL Draft pick in 2010, and that stock could rise when you consider how (unlike in all of 2007, and portions of 2008) he no longer has to deal with any nagging injuries. “I think this is the healthiest I’ve been since I’ve been here,” Benn said at Illini Media Day. Obviously, this prompts the question of whether he will forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft next off-season. When asked about all the people who assume he’s done with college after this year, Benn said

“The media just does their job. All my focus is on September against Missouri. That decision is for later down the road. I think I would be dishonest if I was thinking about something like that which I’m not, because we have unfinished business here.”

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Last year’s 5-7 season, was a devastating disappointment for Benn and the Illini. Following 2007’s 9-4 BCS “Champaign Campaign,” many experts thought Illinois would take the next step forward- or at least remain where they were. “It’s been on our minds since the end of the Northwestern game, it’s been especially on my mind because I was kind of knocked out of that game we missed out on a lot…I wouldn’t say we’re hungry, I’d say we’re starving in terms of going back to a bowl, we had a taste with the Rose Bowl and now we want to know what it feels like to win,” Benn articulated on the program’s big picture before describing the attitude of this year’s squad in training camp “We got a lot of leadership this year, a lot of guys who have stepped up and taken on the role of vocal leaders on the team.”

And the fans are certainly ready for Benn and his teammates to rise. “For Illinois to have not been so good, football wise for a few years, they have a great fan base. Whether we win or lose, our fans are right beside us and I love that.”

Illini WRs Secret Weapon Michael Hoohoomanwanuii

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The University of Illinois Wide Receiving Corps will be among the best in College Football this year. In this four part series, Paul M. Banks interviews and profiles each of the top four Illini pass catching threats.

Part 3: Michael Hoohoomanwanuii

Part 4: Arrelious “Rejus” Benn

Michael Hoomanawanui, Illinois

Height: 6-5. Weight: 274.

Projected 40 Time: 4.73.

Projected Round (2010): 6-7.

Info courtesy of Walter Fooball.com

Tight End Michael Hoomanawanui (Yes, I actually know how to pronounce his name, it’s “ho-ho-mah-now-uh-new-e) or “Ho-Ho” as most people around the Illinois program call him, makes everyday Christmas Day for Illini QBs with his pass catching and route running abilities.

“I’ve really been working on becoming a complete tight end with blocking and receiving. Last year I put it all together and people got to see that, so hopefully I can just build on that and do whatever I can to help the team win,” Ho-Ho said during my exclusive conversation with him Illini Media Day. Last week Michael was named to the Mackey Award Watch List, an honor to be bestowed upon the nation’s top Tight End. He also spoke about the tremendous talent Illinois has at the wide receiver position, possibly the nation’s best.

“In the summer, we had some pretty tough workouts, we pulled together and pulled the team along, coach has just let us let it be our team with all the experience we have…I personally think they’re one of the best in the country, but right now all it is, is potential and Coach has been talking about how we got to turn potential into performance, they’ve been doing great in camp so far, so we’ll see how it translates into performance,” Ho-ho said. If he does go to the next level, who exactly might be his role model? La Lafayette Illinois Football

“Tony Gonzalez, Gates, Olsen, there’s a lot of great guys out there, so I try to take something from each of their games and I’ll be alright,”


Illinois Wide Receivers- Jeff Cumberland

The University of Illinois Wide Receiving Corps will be among the best in College Football this year. In this four part series, Paul M. Banks interviews and profiles each of the top four Illini pass catching threats.

In Jeff Cumberland, the Illini passing game has a big, make that a very big target. “Because of my size, a lot of people other than my teammates don’t know how strong or fast I actually am. But in addition to being physically big, I’m smart I watch film, I know the game, I know the coverages,” Cumberland told me at Illini Media Day.

“You wouldn’t think someone who’s 240, 250 plus could run as fast as me so teams that don’t know when they see me on film and think I’m not that fast, but I’m getting my separation. They might think ‘he can’t run by you, may be he’ll run inside,” the 6’5” senior with approximate 4.6 speed replied when I asked him about his size possibly making him deceptively fast.

During our exclusive conversation I also asked him what larger receivers in the NFL he models his game on. “I would say Brandon Marshall, he’s big strong, has agility, I really look up to him, Andre Johnson too.” cumberland2

Cumberland came into the University of Illinois as a very highly tight end. The recruiting services loved him as he was named PrepStar All-American, the nation’s No. 66 overall recruit by ESPN.com, and a four-star by Rivals.com and Scout.com. He was slow to develop as a tight end his freshman and sophomore years, but when he was moved to receiver in middle of 2007, his career began to blossom as he was extremely productive during the last four games or so.

Cumberland talked about the transition. “There was also a mismatch. When I was at tight end, there were a lot of linebackers covering me, who I can run right past them. I feel the same way playing receiver outside, I’m just as fast as DBs if not faster, and physical.” Last year he was fairly productive, but 2009 looks to be a breakout year for him. Provided there are enough balls to go around in the Illini’s extremely talented receiving corps.

“Something that we all are trying to do is use the chances we get as much as we can. We each have to take as much advantage of the playing time we get because there’s a lot of guys who can step up and perform if you aren’t,” Cumberland stated. Of course, all this depth could be a blessing or a curse- and it depends on how the coaching staff and Illini quarterback Juice Williams manage the situation. Cumberland spoke about the positive potential:

“Rather than one person to get 70 balls and the next person to get 30 balls, you spread the balls out, when you got so many weapons…there’s going to be less double teams and triple teams when they have to worry about everybody that’s out on the field; instead of just one person.”

University of Illinois Fighting Illini Season Football Preview, Part 1

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By Paul Schmidt

The 2009 University of Illinois Fighting Illini football team is likely to be something of an enigma.  It seems that any time expectations are heaped upon the school, they never live up to those expectations, and when they have no one thinking highly of them they tend to over-perform everyone’s opinions.

Does that mean that this year’s team will fail, again, to make a bowl game as many experts are projecting the Illini to a middle of the pack finish in the Big Ten?

Hopefully, this preview can answer some of those burning questions. First we’ll go over why Illini fans should be optimistic, the offense, and then tomorrow preview why they should be nervous (the defense).

OFFENSE


There will be one thing that will never be said about the 2009 incarnation of the Fighting Illini — they couldn’t score.  This team will boast one of the nation’s highest scoring offenses and will be one of the most
juiceentertaining teams to watch in the country every Saturday.

Things will begin and end with Isiah “Juice” Williams. One of two Illini dark-horse Heisman candidates, Williams has to have a great season for the Illini to go far. The question on the minds of many Illini fans is whether or not we’ll see the Juice of his sophomore season (that guided the Illini to the Rose Bowl) or whether it’ll be the inconsistent Juice of 2008.

For his part, Williams is focused on the company line for the upcoming campaign.

“We all have to do our job, gotta count on the next man to do their job, and you gotta have all the parts of the machine really come together and operate,” Williams said. “Once you do that, that’s when you get the passing yards, and the rushing yards, and the W’s most importantly.”

Consistency is obviously a big key for Williams and one of the things he needed to work on as a QB was his touch — as in acquiring one.

“My problem was my first two years I really didn’t know a lot of stuff that was going on, so I did what I did best — throw it as hard as I can,” Williams said. “Obviously, that really hurt pass percentages, and hurt a few receivers’ hands. Once I got into the offense and started to understand the position and the concepts that we were trying to run through each play, I was able to go out there and really throw it.”

Williams’ ability to ‘really throw it’ will be made all the easier with an incredible group of wide receivers that may be the nation’s best.  Not among the nations’ best — they very well could be the most talented group of wide receivers lining up in college football.

Arrelious “Rejus” Benn headlines the talented group as the Illini’s other darkhorse Heisman hopeful, but the talent hardly stops there.  Florida transfer Jarrod Fayson looks to step in and contribute immediately, and offensive coordinator Mike Schultz likes what he sees of the young man. benn

“Jarrod is really a big strong kid,” Schultz said. “He’s a great route runner and has great hands. He’s not a guy that will beat defensive backs deep, but he can definitely get by them and stop and come back.”

Benn and Fayson will be joined by A.J. Jenkins, Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, Cordale Scott and Fred Sykes, along with much-heralded newcomer Terry Hawthorne.

The biggest challenge is going to be on Schultz this season as he is tasked with getting everyone enough catches to keep the entire receiving corps happy.

“I got a way to keep everyone happy, but I’m not telling anybody,” Schultz said with a laugh. “Right now we have everyone learning a couple positions, both at wide and split ends.”

With all of the concentration on the pitch-and-catch combinations, this is a team that in 2007 led the Big Ten in rushing and had one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the nation.  Now, Rashard Mendenhall was a big part of that, and he has been in the NFL for a year already, but there still is a lot of talent in the backfield.

Setting aside the obvious speed threat of Williams running when he can’t find someone open to pass to, the Illini will feature three talented players in the backfield.

Daniel Dufrene, Jason Ford, and Mikel LeShoure will all split time at running back, as Illinois head coach Ron Zook has repeatedly said that he not only doesn’t think that a team has to have a featured back, but that he feels all three will be able to contribute given the situation.

Dufrene, however, may emerge as the most important runner for the Illini as last season he led the Illini in yards-per-carry, despite having a season marred by personal troubles and some injuries.