On Wednesday afternoon, late in a series of one-on-one reps between the wide receivers and defensive backs, second-year flanker Arrelious Benn ran a route that looked vertical until he cut it sharply across the middle, from left to right. Benn made two quick cuts, which created separation between him and the defender, and ended up going diagonally upfield as Josh Freeman's throw found him in stride.
If there's any soundtrack to the this mano-a-mano exercise, a common period in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice, it's the inevitable jawing between the offensive and defensive players, and the occasional holler from a coach. On this rep, however, it was the quarterback who let out a yelp.
Just as the football was finding its target, Freeman yelled, "Go Rejus!" This wasn't some practice-field taunt; there was real urgency in his voice. It was as if the quarterback could see an entire defense laid out on the field, and a path to pay dirt through that defense if the pass-catcher could run fast enough and strong enough.
It was as if Freeman could see what Benn's future in the NFL might be.
When the Buccaneers drafted the former University of Illinois star early in the second round in 2010, they did so with the belief that he could be a run-after-the-catch nightmare for the opposition. A rock-solid 220 pounds, Benn has a very strong lower body, good speed and a knack for breaking tackles. The route he ran in practice on Wednesday is exactly the type the Buccaneers expect him to turn from medium into big. That's obviously what Freeman expects, at least, and he's been waiting awhile to see it.
Everybody in the Buccaneers' organization has been waiting for that moment, none more so than Benn himself. In his rookie season, he developed slowly but surely in Tampa Bay's offense and eventually emerged as a force in the second half of the campaign. He ended up as a starter opposite split end Mike Williams, a fellow rookie who had been a star from Day One. Just as that tandem started to take off, Benn suffered a torn ACL in Week 16 during a rout of Seattle.
Since ACL recoveries average close to nine months, it looked like Benn would be subject to yet another slow start the following season. It didn't help that the NFL's work stoppage kept Benn from working with Tampa Bay's trainers on a daily basis after February, but he decided that wouldn't slow him down. The 22-year-old with a total of 15 games of NFL experience told himself that it was time to become a true professional on and off the field. His goal was to be ready for the start of training camp.
Amazingly, he was. The Bucs' trainers and coaches urged him on a daily basis to take it slow, because he wanted to run every rep at full speed from the first day of camp, but eventually they took the governor off his engine. That route that so excited Freeman on Wednesday was part of an impressive – and most definitely full-speed – practice for Benn.
"The training staff did a great job and I stayed on top of my injury," he said. "I wouldn't say it was tough during the lockout, but due to the lockout I had to focus on my leg a lot more than I probably would have if I'd had the trainers around. So I did a lot of little things on my own to keep my body right, keep my body going."
Benn had friends throw him a football inside his house, even before he was ready to get outside and run. As he progressed, he seriously considered buying a Jugs machine to fire passes at him, but didn't pull the trigger before the new CBA was finalized and football returned. When he could run, he headed over to a nearby high school field and caught passes from a wide variety of quarterbacks. Or perhaps we should say, 'quarterbacks.' One was his older brother. One was his little brother. One was even his girlfriend, Chelsea.
"I caught a lot of balls," he said. "I wanted to watch film but I really couldn't. I just stayed active and stayed positive. I never thought negative. If you think negative, negative things are going to happen. I'm positive through all that happens."
Now he's positive that he's going to play on Saturday, when the Buccaneers take on the Miami Dolphins in the third preseason game for each team. That's obviously another big step in Benn's return from his serious injury, and while he admits that he's still "getting his wind back," he thinks he's ready.
"I'm excited," he said. "I don't want to get too excited or otherwise I'll hyperventilate and stuff. It's good to be back out there with the guys doing the things that I need to do. Just going out there and having fun."
Benn caught 25 passes in his rookie season, 16 in his last seven games. He mixed his first career 100-yard game in there (122 yards against Washington in Week 13) and averaged a nice 15.8 yards per reception over the full season. That was the top average on the team, and an early indication that he could indeed give the offense a big-play element. Over the past month, since the CBA was put in place and the Bucs opened training camp, Head Coach Raheem Morris has seen that same "Rejus" Benn from the second half of 2010 emerging.
"He's really been running himself back into shape," said Morris. "For a guy that's coming off that injury that he had, he's really looking strong, looking powerful, looking explosive. All those things are there. Now it's just about repetition and going out there continuing to play and getting better. We've seen him do it before. We watched him do it last year. Hopefully he can pick up right where he left off. Right in stride."
Williams is drawing more and more attention from opposing defenses. Dezmon Briscoe is developing into a legitimate additional threat. Freeman is driving himself to be even better than in his amazing 2010 breakout season. All the pieces are falling into place as perfectly as the route Benn ran for his quarterback in Wednesday's one-on-ones. If he can do his own part and prove that his rapid comeback is for real, Benn might find a lot of open field in front of him.
"The sky's the limit," he said in regards to the Bucs' burgeoning passing attack. "You saw what we were doing last year. It's going to be good because we're all growing together and this is the future that the coaches and the G.M. are trying to put together. We're all trying to get on the right path. We're not there yet; we're not comfortable where we are. We always want to get better, and we're getting better every day in practice. We're cleaning stuff up in these preseason games and trying to turn it over to the regular season."