Vincent Sanders knows what ‘it’ looks like. That indefinable character trait that used to separate the greats from the real elite, he’s seen it. The last time he did, it led to something special.
You may remember Sanders from DeVonta Smith’s Heisman Trophy acceptance speech. The former barber-turned-mentor had a backstage pass to the recipient’s ascension, as well as the sweat and sacrifice that came with that journey.
Sanders was there feeding the JUGS machine when Smith wanted to sneak in extra reps late at night. He would also watch the receiver stay up well past 1am studying film, only to hit the sun back on the practice field the next morning. Sanders did not expect to encounter that level of ruthlessness again.
Then he met Malik Benson.
Renowned in college football circles, Sanders has been heard by several of the country’s top athletes, including about 30 current SEC players. Some of them go on to the NFL, and a few may finish in the first round. Benson is the only one who reminds Sanders of Smith.
“When you’re on the road, you see a lot of Mercedes,” Sanders said. “Mercedes is a great car, but you’d rather have a Lamborghini, wouldn’t you? I see a lot of Mercedes in kids, but occasionally I see a Lamborghini, and it reminds you that it’s the best dog. That’s what Devonta and Malik are to me.”
Sanders was introduced to Benson two years ago during the first season of Curatorship at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. Within a few phone calls, it clicked immediately between the two.
Most of Sanders’ conversations with Benson take place before or after a workout. Like Smith, the star receiver has a habit of regularly heading to Alabama’s indoor practice facility for extra reps. He also shares the Heisman winner’s constant pursuit of perfection.
During his two seasons with Hutchinson, Benson set the school’s receiving record with 2,152 yards left with 21 touchdowns through the air over 23 games. However, Sanders did not once hear the star receiver talk about statistics. Instead, Benson is more concerned with breaking down his tape and fixating on polishing the few imperfections in his game.
“It was like, wait a minute, I’ve seen this before,” Sanders said. “I’ve seen this hunger. I’ve seen someone who wants it and will do anything for it. He’s not worried about the awards or anything like that. That’s the mindset DeVonta had when he won the Heisman.”
Like Smith, Benson comes to Alabama as something of an underdog. Before becoming the number 1 JUCO player in the country, the Lansing, Kansas native was a stranger on the football field. He played in a high school Wing-T offense, recording just 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns over three varsity seasons.
Instead, his future seemed to lie on the track, where he boasted a time of 10.3 in the 100 meters and a long jump of over 25 feet. That athleticism sparked interest from LSU, Texas Tech and UCLA, among others. However, poor performance in class delayed his dream of reaching the Division I level.
Hutchinson offered a second chance that he didn’t want to pass up.
After serving almost exclusively as a deep threat in high school, Benson saw JUCO as an opportunity to reboot his football career by refining his game beyond his elite speed. He absorbed every bit of coaching he could, became meticulous with his technique, analyzing all his moves through countless hours of film work before perfecting it ad nauseam on the practice field.
“Malik is a sharpener. He’s old-fashioned,” Sanders said. “Kids want instant gratification these days, but what happened to grinding? Malik took the long road with junior college, but the long road has made him who he is. He’s a grinder and he trusts the process. He understands the process because he experienced it there.
Sure enough, the process has produced results.
Benson wasted no time fitting into Hutchinson’s offense, earning first-team NJCAA DI All-America honors during his freshman year, while hauling in 43 passes for 1,229 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games. During the breakaway season, Division I coaches ate out of his hands, allowing him to choose between the nation’s premiere programs. In the end he chose Alabama, where he joined the Crimson Tide on July 5 last year.
The elevated status did little to detract from his modest approach.
Hutchinson receivers coach Matt Martin was hired one day before Benson’s commitment to Alabama. His first impression of the star receiver was one of shock, as he was surprised to find him on the practice field shortly after his announcement.
“An hour later he’s organizing all the receivers and all the quarterbacks to throw on the field,” said Martin. “For a lot of guys it would be like, ‘I made it, I’m in Alabama.’ With him it’s like ‘I’m in Alabama, and now it’s time to prove why.’”
This past season, Benson did just that. Despite sharing a receiving corps with four other Division I wideouts, he again led the Blue Dragons with 977 yards and 10 touchdowns on 59 receptions. That included a few more breathtaking moments for Martin.
Perhaps the most impressive display at Benson’s peak came in last year’s season opener against Navarro. Facing a third-and-fifteenth from the Hutchinson 10-yard line, the fast receiver secured a one-handed screen pass before racing 90 yards into the end zone untouched.
“He just reaches down and grabs it on the run,” recalled Martin. “There are guys in front of him who have a corner on him, but he’s completely out of the corner. I’m just kind of in shock and awe at what happened, and then it’s even more impressive when you get it on film the next day sees.
“His speed is incredible. There were several throws in practice where you thought the ball had been knocked over 5 or 10 yards, and then you look up and see Malik underneath.
After a year full of highlights, Martin says he won’t be surprised by anything Benson does in Alabama.
While Hutchinson mostly lined up the 6-foot-1, 185-pound playmaker in the X receiver position, he also has the acumen to move in to play at the next level.
“Whatever they ask him to do, he will excel in that role,” said Martin. “Obviously he’s going to be a deep-ball guy because of his speed. That’s just a given. He’s also a physical target. He’s good at getting his body in the right position to play. There are a lot of good corners in the Jayhawk league he’s played against, so he’s used to the physical game, he’ll be ready for anything they throw at him.”
Benson already has a fast start in Alabama. According to sources, he shone with the team during preparations for the Sugar Bowl last month, causing bouts for the Crimson Tide first-team cornerbacks during practice.
“He’s got a lot of maturity,” Alabama receiver Ja’Corey Brooks said last month. “I’ve seen him have a lot of quick agility. I like his way of playing.”
Alabama’s hope is that Benson’s speed unlocks a receiving corps that has been unable to achieve separation for much of last season. The Crimson Tide returns with its two best targets in Brooks and Jermaine Burton, but don’t be surprised if the offense has a new “it” factor this fall.
“People expect Malik to ball, but they’ll say, ‘Woah, wait a minute,'” Sanders said. “He’s going to show you something.”