Malik Benson’s work ethic compares to another Alabama great

Vincent Sanders knows what “it” looks like. That indefinable character trait used to separate the greats from the true elite, he saw it. The last time he did it led to something special.

You may remember Sanders from DeVonta Smith’s Heisman Trophy acceptance speech. The former barber-turned-mentor had a behind-the-scenes pass to the catcher’s rise to stardom and the sweat and sacrifice that journey entailed.

Sanders was there to fuel the JUGS machine when Smith wanted to squeeze in some extra reps late at night. He also watched the receiver stay awake well past 1 a.m. to study film, only to beat the sun on the training ground the next morning. Sanders never expected to encounter this level of relentlessness again.

Then he met Malik Benson.

Renowned in college football circles, Sanders is on the ears of many of the nation’s top athletes, including about 30 current SEC players. Some of them will move on to the NFL, and a few could become first-round picks. Benson is the only one who reminds Sanders of Smith.

“When you’re on the road you see a lot of Mercedes,” Sanders said. “Mercedes is a hell of a car, but you’d prefer a Lamborghini, wouldn’t you? I see a lot of Mercedes in kids, but once in a while I see a Lamborghini, and it reminds you that it’s the best dog. That’s what Devonta and Malik are to me.

Sanders was introduced to Benson two years ago during the catcher’s first season at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. Within a few phone calls, the two immediately clicked.

Most of Sanders’ conversations with Benson come before or after a workout. Like Smith, the star receiver is used to regularly visiting the Alabama Indoor Training Facility for extra reps. He also shares the Heisman winner’s constant quest for perfection.

During his two seasons at Hutchinson, Benson set the school receiving record with 2,152 yards to go with 21 touchdowns through the air in 23 games. However, Sanders hasn’t once heard the star receiver talk about stats. Instead, Benson is more concerned with breaking his tape and focusing on polishing the few imperfections in his game.

“It was like, wait a minute, I’ve seen that before,” Sanders said. “I saw this hunger. I saw someone who wants it and who is ready to do anything for it. He doesn’t care about accolades or any of that. That’s DeVonta’s mindset when he won the Heisman.

Like Smith, Benson comes to Alabama as an underdog. Before becoming the No. 1 ranked JUCO player in the nation, the Lansing, Kansas native was an unknown on the football field. Playing in a Wing-T offense in high school, he recorded just 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns in three college seasons.

Instead, his future seemed to be on the track where he boasted a 10.3 time in the 100-yard dash as well as a long jump of over 25 feet. This athleticism has attracted interest from LSU, Texas Tech, and UCLA, among others. However, poor class performance delayed his dream of reaching the Division I level.

Malik Benson. Pictures | Malik Benson’s Twitter account

Hutchinson presented a second chance he was not going to lose.

After serving almost exclusively as a deep threat in high school, Benson saw JUCO as an opportunity to revive his football career by honing his game beyond his elite speed. Soaking up all the coaching he could, he became meticulous with his technique, analyzing his every move through countless hours of cinematic work before perfecting it to nausea on the training ground. .

“Malik is a grinder. He’s old school,” Sanders said. “Kids these days want instant gratification, but what happened to the grind? Malik came the long way with junior college, but the long way made him who he is. That’s a grinder and he trusts the process, he understands the process because he has experienced it there.

Indeed, the process produced results.

Benson wasted no time adjusting to Hutchinson’s offense, earning first-team NJCAA DI All-America honors in his freshman year while passing 43 for 1,229 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 matches. The breakout season saw Division I coaches eat out of his hands, allowing him to choose between First Nation programs. Eventually he chose Alabama, committing to the Crimson Tide on July 5 of last year.

The high status did little to alter his humble approach.

Hutchinson wide receivers coach Matt Martin was hired a day before Benson’s commitment to Alabama. His first impression of the star receiver came as a shock as he was surprised to find him on the training ground moments after his announcement.

“An hour later, he’s arranging all the receivers and all the quarterbacks to be on the field throwing,” Martin said. “For a lot of guys it would be like, ‘I made it, I’m in Alabama.’ With him, it’s like, ‘I’m in Alabama, and now it’s time to prove why.'”

Last season, Benson did just that. Although he shares a receiving corps with four other Division I wides, he once again led the Blue Dragons with 977 yards and 10 touchdowns on 59 receptions. This included a few jaw-dropping extra moments for Martin.

Perhaps the most impressive play on Benson’s highlight reel came in last season’s opener against Navarro. Facing a third-and-a-15 from the 10-yard line by Hutchinson, the speedy receiver got a one-handed screen pass before going 90 yards untouched into the end zone.

“He just bends down and grabs it running,” Martin recalled. “There are guys in front of him who have an angle on him, but he completely goes over the angle. I’m just a bit shocked and in awe of what happened, and it’s even more impressive when you see it on film the next day.

“His speed is incredible. There were several throws in training where you thought the ball was knocked down 5 or 10 yards and then you look up and Malik is underneath.

After a year of highlights, Martin says he won’t be surprised by anything Benson does in Alabama.

While Hutchinson typically fielded the 6-foot-1, 185-pound point guard at receiver X, he also has the ability to move inside to take it to the next level.

“Whatever they ask him to do, he will excel in that role,” Martin said. “Obviously he’s going to be a deep ball guy because of his speed. That’s just a given. He’s also a physical target. He’s good at getting his body in the right position to make plays. There are a lot of good corners in the Jayhawk league that he’s played against, so he’s used to the physical game and he’ll be ready for whatever they throw at him.

Benson has already gotten off to a fast start in Alabama. According to sources, he shone during the Sugar Bowl preparations with the team last month, causing crises for Crimson Tide first-team cornerbacks during practice.

“He’s got a lot of maturity,” Alabama wide receiver Ja’Corey Brooks said last month. “I saw that he has a lot of quick agility. I love his style of play.”

Alabama’s hope is that Benson’s speed unlocks a receiving corps that failed to separate for much of last season. The Crimson Tide turns its top two targets over to Brooks and Jermaine Burton, but don’t be surprised if the offense features a new “it” factor this fall.

“People are expecting Malik to play, but they’re going to be like, ‘Woah, wait a minute,'” Sanders said. “He’s going to show you something.”

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