- Scott Powers, Reporter
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Any hopes of a run at the Heisman Trophy likely ended for Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn with his injury and one reception in the season-opener against Missouri. Any other awards likely are now out the door, too, as he's totaled five catches for 42 yards and zero touchdowns in his first three games of the season.
What began with the unveiling of www.7-to-9.com, a Web site promoting quarterback Juice Williams (No. 7) and Benn (No. 9), and numerous preseason accolades, Benn's actual season hasn't lived up to the hype. Illinois' 1-2 start and its impending date with Penn State on Saturday haven't helped, either.
But despite Benn's lackluster season so far, he still has some major supporters, specifically NFL scouts. Benn may not be putting up the numbers he, coach Ron Zook or Illini nation hoped for, but scouts are well aware of what the 6-foot-2, 220-pound wideout is capable of.
"Numbers don't mean nearly as much to a scout looking at a collegiate player as they do a college football fan, and it's important to differentiate a player's production from his performance on the field," said Steve Muench, ESPN Scouts, Inc. college football and NFL draft analyst. "A number of different factors play a role in a player's production, including injuries, scheme and supporting cast."
One of the major factors for Benn has been his right ankle sprain from the Missouri game. He injured it in the first quarter and never returned. Ever since, he hasn't looked like the same dominating player he was a year ago when he caught 67 passes for 1,055 yards.
He was without a reception against Illinois State and had four catches for 33 yards against Ohio State.
"The ankle injury slowed him during the Ohio State game," Muench said. "One play in particular that stood out was his 8-yard rush. He really had to slow and gather himself getting up in the hole."
Benn did impress in the Ohio State game.
"On the other hand, his 16-yard catch on third-and-11 with the ball at Illinois' 9-yard line is an excellent example of why scouts like him so much," Muench said. "He shows no fear going over the middle and makes the tough catch in traffic.
"Besides, we have seen what kind of a dynamic playmaker he is when he's healthy. He can stretch the field, he can make plays underneath, and he can produce with the ball in his hands whether it's after the catch or as a kickoff return man."
Another factor has been the play of the quarterbacks and the team's play calling. Neither Williams nor backup Eddie McGee has thrown with any consistency, and there have been more than double the amount of rushing plays called to passing ones.
Benn isn't pleased with his start, but he also is optimistic he and the team can turn it around.
"These are the things that come with the sport," Benn said Monday. "You got to keep going. All I care about is W's and whatever I have to do to help the team. When my name is called, I'm going to take advantage of it.
"We haven't reached our full potential yet. We have a lot of ballgames to go. It all starts today. We need to get back on track."
Zook is just as confident in Benn going into this week's game as he has been the past three seasons.
"[Benn] is everything we all know he is," Zook said. "He's a competitor, and he's looking forward to this game. He can't stand to lose either and he's going to do everything in his power to do everything he can do in this game."
NFL scouts will be keeping a close eye on Benn. Scouts Inc. currently has Benn as the No. 21 college prospect. Mel Kiper has him going No. 12 on his latest 2010 Big Board and has him listed as the No. 2 junior wide receiver.
"So what's it all mean?" Muench said. "The ankle injury and lack of production are concerns, but they are minor concerns at this point. Benn has nine more regular-season games to wow NFL front offices if he leaves school early, and he could return for another year.
"In addition, while receivers like Syracuse's Mike Williams and Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard have improved their draft stock this year, they don't have Benn's natural ability and rare upside. We still think that Benn is a first-round talent with all of that in mind."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite a lackluster season, Illinois' Arrelious Benn is still impressing scouts.