Injured Benn Still Has Big Impact For Illini

Arrelious Benn (Holly Smith)

A college football team is composed of 105 players, and all make contributions through practices and games. No one person should get credit or blame for a team's fortunes. But when Arrelious Benn, the Fighting Illini's best player, went down with injury in the first quarter of the first game of the season, it had both a physical and psycological impact.

Arrelious Benn was a high school All-American receiver at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. He continued his great play at Illinois. He made everyone's pre-season All-America team this summer after catching 67 passes for 1055 yards as a sophomore. In two seasons, he ranked second on the Illini's career receptions list and seventh in career receiving yards.

The all-purpose star has scored touchdowns receiving, running and on a kickoff return. The unquestioned top player and cinch high NFL draft choice became the focal point of Illini offensive planning for 2009. The entire offense depended on his all-around game.

That is, until he went down with a high ankle sprain the first quarter of the Missouri game. Suddenly, a pall was cast over the Illini offense. It played with a lethargy inconsistent with its practice routine and lost badly. Benn is a humble person, but he does admit the offense was created to utilize his many gifts.

"I'm not gonna take credit for it. But I'm a big key to the offense. When I went down, it was unexpected. That's something we had to fix. Other people had to step up, which they did. We're just gonna keep on top of that."

Benn is a true warrior. A high ankle sprain takes several weeks to heal if one keeps a low profile and doesn't put pressure on it. But Benn practiced daily and has played in every game since. Just like defensive end Will Davis last season, he may not heal until the season is over.

"It's football, you know. If you're injured, you've just got to keep going the rest of the year. Just try to get better each week. I want to come out Saturday and do whatever I can for my team."

Every time he has felt improvement in the ankle, he has reinjured it. That is a big reason why he has only 26 catches for 298 yards and four carries for 16 yards through 8 games.

"It goes back and forth. I try to stay on top of it, keep treating it. That's one of those kinds of injuries where you kind of have to stay off of it. I could stay off it, but I don't want to. I want to go out there and play football."

He sat out most of the second half of the Michigan victory due to the ankle.

"Yeah, I kind of twisted it blocking. You know, when you've got your foot planted and have an unexpected twist. It's gonna happen. I know I'll be ready Saturday. I'm taking every rep with the ones, just doing whatever I need to do."

Injuries to Benn, quarterback Juice Williams, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, receiver Jarred Fayson and others has perhaps made the Illini offense feel snake bit. It is hard to remain confident when your best players are unavailable or at less than full strength.

"Yeah, kind of. It's football. You've got to deal with those types of injuries. Just try to get better each week."

Early in the Michigan game, Benn scored his first touchdown of the season. It was a long time coming, and his reverent introspection afterward was touching.

"Yeah, it's a very important feeling to get that first touchdown. It's a great feeling to get in the endzone. On top of that, we got a W. Hopefully, we can turn this thing around right here. It just felt good."

Actually, that was only the sixth touchdown of his illustrious career. Receivers must find openings, and quarterbacks must hit them at the correct time for scores to occur. Opponents fear Benn enough to make him a point of emphasis.

"I get double-teamed alot, but that's gonna happen. When other guys get catches, it opens up things for me. That's why we've got the types of receivers we have. Getting Jarred (Fayson) back may help also."

Illinois coach Ron Zook spoke about "Rejus" Benn's determination to score against the Wolverines and his toughness to play with injury.

"The one thing about Rejus is that he's so tough. He has one speed. You really can't tell even when he is a little banged up. I know it bothers him. I know it hurts him. He's not the type to let on. We all saw that first touchdown. I don't know if they had enough people on their sidelines to stop him. He was going in and he was going to get in. That's the Rejus that we all know, and it's great to be able to see him do that."

Some say the loss to Minnesota last year on Homecoming was the beginning of the downfall for Illini football.

"It was a game we could have won. We beat ourselves in that game with a lot of penalties and mistakes. I don't know what it was. It was just little things as far as us as an offense. We just need to capitalize and cut down on our mistakes."

A return trip to Minnesota is upcoming this Saturday, and the Illini need to win to maintain their momentum. It won't be easy.

"They're a great defense. They have guys that fly around. They pretty much have the same defense they had last year. We know what we can expect out of them. They'll probably put somebody over top of me, try to jam me on the line which they did last year."

Benn's brother Trulon Henry has been playing safety at College of Dupage these last two years. Having his brother close has been an asset for him. The safety is being recruited by the Illini.

"He's doing good. His season has ended. He had a real good season. He had more touchdowns than me. He always tells me about it. I still have some games to catch up.

"I'm pretty sure he's getting ready to leave and go somewhere to a different school. I don't know where he's gonna go to, I haven't really talked to him about it yet. I'm pretty sure he's really excited."

Does Benn feel the Michigan game can reverse fortune so the Illini can get on a winning streak?

"Yeah, I think we can reverse it. These are teams we can easily beat. We've just got to come to play each week. Just do what we're supposed to do."

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