SPARTANBURG Kelvin Benjamin is 23 and a rookie and he had only one productive season at Florida State. He’s still learning the playbook, still learning to run routes and still learning when to be fast and when to be patient.
But you should have seen him at Carolina’s seventh practice in Spartanburg.
Counting drills and scrimmages, he might have caught 15 passes.
Saturday is all about the Benjamin.
There’s the two-on-two drill in which Benjamin, whom the Carolina Panthers drafted in the first round, runs a slant, beats Josh Thomas, grabs a pass and tumbles into the end zone.
Working against the first-team defense, Benjamin sprints into coverage and snatches a hard pass from his new best friend Cam Newton.
I’ve yet to find anybody that has seen Benjamin drop a pass in Spartanburg.
Benjamin says receivers coach Ricky Proehl tells him to “Go up and get the ball at its highest point.”
So Benjamin does.
“No way you can miss that big guy,” says Carolina quarterback Joe Webb.
Benjamin bruised his knee at practice last Sunday, and Saturday is his first day back. He chooses not to ease in.
“He’s very confident, very comfortable in who he is,” says Carolina coach Ron Rivera. “You know it’s funny to watch him in meetings and you wonder because he’s so young. Then he gets out there and everything he’s seeing and everything he’s hearing and everything he’s writing down he’s transferring right onto the field.”
Benjamin has 10 1/4-inch hands, an 83-inch wingspan and a gold star atop his homework.
“It’s a good thing to have a big body out there and his catch-radius is pretty good,” says second-team quarterback Derek Anderson. “He’s got good hands. Sometimes you get him on smaller (defensive backs) you just have to give him a chance.”
Anderson, who will begin his 10th season, challenges Benjamin with questions – what do you see, how do you see it?
Veteran receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant work with the rookie. This is what we don’t do, this is what we do and this is how we do it.
Newton works with and hangs out with Benjamin. Neither the playbook nor the rookie symposium tells first-year receivers to hang out with the quarterback.
It’s instinct. And it’s a Panthers tradition. In the mid-to-late 1990s and into the early 2000s you’d see Wesley Walls, Carolina’s fine tight end, at a Spartanburg restaurant with the starting quarterback. They were tight. You could tell.
Then the quarterback would get benched or cut. The next week you’d see Walls at the same restaurant with the new starting quarterback. They were tight. You could tell.
“We do hang out a lot,” Benjamin says about Newton. “Just go back to getting the feel of each other so it’s just second nature to us.”
“They’re kind of the same guy, to be honest with you,” Anderson says of Newton and Benjamin. “Off the field they both like to joke around a little bit. They’re both very confident in what they do. I think Cam’s been good for him.”
Newton and Benjamin are both 6-foot-5 and both won a national championship. The quarterback won in 2011 with Auburn. The receiver won in 2014 against Auburn.
Benjamin caught the game-winning pass with 13 seconds remaining to lead Florida State.
Does the subject ever come up?
“Every day, every day,” says Benjamin.
Newton looks out for the rookie anyway. Then he looks for him.
Benjamin takes off down the left side Saturday and Newton lobs a pass. The ball is underthrown, perhaps by design. Benjamin slows and so do 6-1 cornerback Melvin White and 6-foot safety Colin Jones.
Benjamin looks like a dad posting up his kids in front of the hoop in the driveway.
White and Jones go up, but they don’t go all the way. They’re coach. Benjamin is first class.
Benjamin reaches into the sky, grabs the ball and hangs on as he falls to the turf.
It is only one play and it is only one practice.
But even if you choose to be despondent about Carolina’s receivers, you like what you see.
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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