This week, Arrelious "Rejus" Benn is finding out what it feels like to be a starting wide receiver in the National Football League…on the practice field at least.
With extra practice time to experiment and the growing feeling that Benn should be featured more prominently in their offense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are giving their rookie receiver the starter treatment during the bye week. That meant all of the reps as the starting Z (or flanker) in the team's walk-through on Tuesday and, when the full-speed work returned on Wednesday, another sizeable dose of action.
"We feel good about where he's at right now," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson of the second-round pick out of Illinois. "We think this bye week is going to help him. He never came out of the huddle today. That will help him. We'll have the same plan with him tomorrow and we were that way with him yesterday. He's taken all the walk-through reps and all the live reps. We like where he's at right now and he'll continue to get better."
Benn has three receptions for 33 yards in his first three NFL games, all posted during the final six minutes of Game Three against Pittsburgh. Because starting Z Sammie Stroughter had been hit by a bout of cramps at the end of a hot and pass-happy day, Benn saw his most significant playing time at that position in the fourth quarter and made it count.
"It felt great," said Benn. "I went out there and showed my ability. I know my ability and I believe in my ability, and what I displayed is what I can do. It's all about me knowing what I'm doing, so I can do it full speed and just go out there and do it with ease."
The Bucs have never been displeased with Benn's efforts or his progress since he joined the team in May. If he has appeared to come on slowly, it's only because he has been compared to fellow 2010 draftee Mike Williams, whose own journey to the starting X position was almost ridiculously quick. That's a credit to Williams, who has looked like one of the major steals of the latest draft, but it also has a bit to do with the different positions into which the two rookies were slotted.
"The Z position is totally different than the X, and I play the Z position," said Benn. "I have to learn a lot more. I have to listen to the whole play. Mike gets a little slack and I kind of beat up on him about it. But Mike is perfect for the X and I'm perfect for the Z. I'm making my strides, learning it, picking up the pace and I'm going to be out there."
That's what the Buccaneers are trying to figure out during their extra playing time: How soon Benn will be out there, and just how big his role will be. The team is looking for ways to keep Stroughter – a proven producer in the slot – fresh as his own role has expanded, and the obvious solution would be to increase Benn's playing time. That idea is obviously gaining traction among his teammates.
"He had the breakout in the Houston [preseason] game as far as the production on the field," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "Now in practice every week he's been able to come out there and show that he's picking up all his packages up, he's starting to learn his position even more. And then you get those older players starting to come see you, whispering in your ear, 'Hey coach, I think 17's ready to go.'
"All those young, ascending players who are going to be a part of this second half of our season are going to be able to get in there and be more productive, be more confident."
Those three passes that Benn caught against the Steelers were actually thrown by reserve quarterback Josh Johnson, after starter Josh Freeman had been spared the game's mop-up minutes. However, Benn has worked extensively with Freeman on the practice field in September as the coaching staff has steadily increased the young receiver's share of the first-team reps.
"I've got a lot of work in with Rejus the last few weeks," said Freeman. "I have a lot of confidence in Rejus that if he goes into the game while I'm in the game he can make a play just like anybody else. I'm excited to see his progression and see him get more in the mix. Last week he came up with three huge catches in the Steeler game. I know Rejus is a player. I know he comes to play and he can be a valuable asset to us."
Benn says the extra reps have not only helped him with the mental side of the game but have improved his conditioning. He says there is a difference between just being in shape and being in the kind of shape that allows a receiver to keep his routes crisp in the fourth quarter of a hard-fought game. Thus, he's glad the Buccaneers' bye week hasn't just been used to get the players extra rest.
"That would be good for some guys but definitely not me," he said. "It's a chance for me to take a deep breath, catch my wind and get into more of the playbook, be more comfortable and just be acclimated with everything. "I'm comfortable now. At first I wasn't comfortable. New setting, new people, and you're trying to fit in, trying to give the right impression and learn the playbook. I feel good."