What can Benn do with his shoulder at 100 percent?

John Supinie

Now that he can use both arms, Illinois sophomore wide receiver Arrelious Benn is ready to shoulder more of the load.

Benn earned freshman of the year in the Big Ten Conference and set a freshman school record with 54 receptions for 676 yards receiving while playing the season with a brace on his right shoulder that severely limited his range of motion and essentially left him playing with one arm following a dislocation in preseason.

"This year I don't even know what I'm going to be able to do,'' Benn said Sunday during media day before Camp Rantoul begins Monday. "I can't wait to see what it feels like. I didn't go through spring ball, but I did have a chance to wear shoulder pads. It felt so loose that it felt awkward. Going into this camp, I'm so anxious.

"I'm healthy. I'm not going to be timid to do certain things. I'm just going to do it.''

It's a good thing Benn has full use of both arms this fall, since he will likely shoulder a bigger role in the offense. The 6-foot-2, 214-pounder from Washington (D.C) Dunbar High School expects the ball in his hands in a number of ways this fall.

Catching it. Running it. Returning it. He's already listed as a preseason first-team Big Ten selection by four magazines. Athlon selected him as a third-team All-America. In his first year in the program last fall, the first-team USA Today prep All-American expected to make immediate contributions after stunning recruiting analysts by picking Illinois over several big-name programs, including Notre Dame.

But he dislocated his right shoulder in the first preseason scrimmage just a week into camp. Even with the brace, his shoulder popped out roughly twice a game, Benn said, and he was unable to reach much above his shoulders to catch passes. A strike zone from somewhere around his shoulders to above his knees was the best bet for a catch last fall.

The powerful runner couldn't use a stiff arm, one of his favorite tools, and he avoided contact with his right shoulder. Benn underwent shoulder surgery in January, then missed spring drills while recovering. The only time the coaches have seen Benn put both hands over his head came on Sundays.

"I've seen him do that,'' said offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, smiling. "We've been to church together a couple times. I've seen them both up there. He's 100 percent healthy, and we're excited.''

Benn had enough moments where he disappeared, missed assignments or looked lost in game speed to expect a big step forward this year, Locksley said.

"There are things to support the statement that we haven't see everything he has to offer yet,'' Locksley said. "That's a great thing.''

Benn is quarterback Juice William's favorite target, and Benn will likely get an increase in rushing attempts (he had 32 carries for 158 yards last season). Benn will definitely return kickoffs, coach Ron Zook said, and will get a close look at punt returns. While Zook wants the ball in Benn's hands, he doesn't want to lean on him too much.

"I don't think you have to say anything to Rejus,'' Zook said. "He's one of those guys who might be a better person than he is a player. He's motivated. He's a gym rat. He loves the game and loves to excel. He'll do anything in his power to be the best he can be.''

Benn's speed and power were evident early. A starter in the season opener, he caught five passes for 74 yards against Missouri. By the fifth game against Penn State, he was already earning awards. He received Big Ten special teams player of the week after returning the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. He also caught six passes for 84 yards and his first receiving touchdown against the Nittany Lions.

Benn started 12 of the 13 games last season and finished with two touchdown receptions -- the final touch was a 56-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter in the Rose Bowl loss. Hehad 280 yards on kickoff returns with the one TD.

With running back Rashard Mendenhall gone to the NFL after setting a single-season school record with 1,681 rushing yards and Williams starting for the third season, "we're a passing team,'' Benn said. "Last year we were labeled as a running team. Our passing game is going to take off.''

That's a stretch, because the Illini ranked last in the Big Ten and 109th in the nation in passing offense last season. With Benn using both arms this fall, he felt everything is within reach.

NOTES: Illinois' first scrimmage with officials has been shifted to Aug. 12. The start time hasn't been determined. The game could move from Camp Rantoul practice fields to Rantoul High School. Details will be determined later. The Aug. 16 scrimmage in Memorial Stadium is closed to the public. … The Illini will practice in split sessions Monday through Wednesday. The Illini will wear pads Thursday but not hit until Friday, Zook said. 

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.