Carolina Panthers rookie Bene’ Benwikere became a cornerback in high school when he couldn’t crack the receiving rotation at his Los Angeles-area Catholic school.
There’s no shame in that: Three of the receivers at Junipero Serra – Marqise Lee, Paul Richardson and Robert Woods – are now in the NFL, and a fourth – George Farmer – plays for Southern Cal.
“That’s how I moved to defense,” Benwikere said.
Benwikere’s switch to corner turned out to be a fortuitous move. While trying to keep up with the star-studded receiving corps at Serra, Benwikere developed the coverage and ball skills that helped him develop into a NFL prospect himself.
The Panthers traded their seventh-round draft pick to Minnesota to move up 20 spots and take Benwikere in the fifth round. The former San Jose State standout is expected to compete with veteran Charles Godfrey at the nickel corner spot.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said the Panthers considered Benwikere in the fourth round, but believed former North Carolina safety Tre Boston was a better value there.
Gettleman was intrigued by Benwikere’s ability to make plays on the ball. Benwikere, 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, finished with 14 career interceptions at San Jose State, including seven in 2012 when he led the Western Athletic Conference and was tied for third nationally.
“He’s got excellent ball skills. He’s got 14 career picks,” Gettleman said last week during the Panthers’ rookie minicamp. “One thing I’ve learned over the years (is) if you’re an interceptor at college, you’ll be an interceptor up here.”
Benwikere made Gettleman look prophetic the following day during the final minicamp practice. Running with wideout Brenton Bersin, Benwikere poked a pass into the air, turned around and picked it off.
“I was in man concept, so I was just following my man reading him,” Benwikere said. “Quarterback threw the ball, I was able to get inside of him, tip it to myself and make a play.”
Benwikere, whose full name is pronounced Ben-ay Ben-WICK-urr-rhee, comes from an athletic background. His father, Bene’ Sr., moved from Nigeria to the U.S. to play soccer at Central Oklahoma, which discontinued the program in his first year at the school.
The older Benwikere tried to get his son interested in soccer, but he gravitated at an early age to football. Benwikere’s cousin, Chris Owens, is a former San Jose State cornerback who was drafted by Atlanta in the third round in 2009.
Owens signed with Kansas City in March, and is expected to play in the Chiefs’ nickel package.
Benwikere also has an uncle, William Lackey, who played at the University of Nevada and in the Arena League for the L.A. Avengers.
But most of Benwikere’s football schooling came at Junipero Serra, which won a state title in 2009 behind their talented receivers, who doubled as sprinters on the school’s track team.
Lee and Richardson were second-round picks this year, going to Jacksonville and Seattle, respectively. Woods went in the second round last year to Buffalo, and caught 40 passes for 587 yards as a rookie.
“You could look really long and hard and I don’t know if you’d find a group of receivers like that who played on the same high school team,” said Ron Caragher, Benwikere’s coach at San Jose State.
Meanwhile, Benwikere was relegated to the high jump his final year of track, in part because he wanted to use his free time working on his backpedal and defensive back technique.
His receiving background was helpful.
“My coaches would tell me, ‘Once you get down the field and you’re running stride for stride, you turn into a receiver now.’ I’m a step behind them because they know where they’re going and they know when to look back for the ball,” Benwikere said. “So I just use their eyes or their body language to understand where the ball is going and by that point turn into a receiver myself.”
Star at San Jose
While Lee, Woods and Richardson were drawing scholarship offers from most football powers, Benwikere heard mostly from WAC schools. He said Boise State wanted him to pay his own way his first year until a scholarship opened.
Instead he followed his cousin’s path to San Jose, where his 14 interceptions tied for the school record and were one more than Owens had while playing there. In a 2012 game against Louisiana Tech, Benwikere had three interceptions against quarterback Colby Cameron, who was with the Panthers in training camp last year.
Benwikere doesn’t have blazing speed – he ran the 40 in 4.63 seconds at the NFL combine – but he has a 40.5-inch vertical leap and is efficient when he runs, according to Gettleman.
“I was watching him (Friday) and there’s no wasted steps. There’s no rounding in transition. He’s very smooth and fluid,” Gettleman said. “That, along with his instincts, his awareness, his intelligence.”
Caragher, the San Jose State coach, echoed Gettleman’s comments.
“You want instinctive football players that have a feel for the game,” Caragher said. “Not just physical ability and mental toughness, but a feel for the game and feel for the offense. And Bene’ has it.”
Benwikere played safety, corner and nickel at San Jose State. At a minimum he should contribute on the Panthers’ special teams as a rookie.
He hopes he gets to line up against some of his former high school teammates. The Panthers face Buffalo and Woods in the first exhibition, and will play Seattle and Richardson in Week 8.
There will be words.
“Oh, definitely,” Benwikere said. “We’re going to be having fun with each other.”