Benton’s Mental, Physical Goals Drive The Mike Linebacker’s Offseason Approach
By Matt Keller
It’s what Al-Rasheed Benton knows and doesn’t know that drives him during these summer doldrums, when the workouts tilt toward tedious and fall camp remains more than a month away.
There’s an internal and external chess match ongoing with the linebacker, who enters his final season as the prime middle cog in West Virginia’s 3-3-5 set. The goals for the summer? Get quicker both mentally and physically in an effort to play faster. Focus in on those quick twitch fibers, and the neurons which allow them to fire.
“I wanted to play faster, to make sure I could move,” Benton said. “I felt like I didn’t move the way I wanted to last season. I had to get my body comp together and work on my physical attributes. The mental will come as you sit and watch all that film. I wanted to get the physical together and make sure my body was ready to play every play they need.”
Benton played at 235 pounds last year, and is right in that area again, being listed at 237. There wasn’t much restructuring to be done, just a tweak here or there that would allow the mike ‘backer to shave the nanoseconds off closing on plays in a league which largely values speed of offensive operation above all else. If Benton can pair that with an already insatiable appetite for film review, he should challenge for the team lead in tackles as he did last season, when he finished second with 80.
“I like watching a lot of film,” Benton said. “I watch film every day and critique myself. I am probably my biggest critic. You watch games and see what you could have done better and how those teams tried to attack you. I try to watch everything. One of the biggest things about playing linebacker is that muscle memory. We do a lot of footwork drills, a lot of things with your eyes.
“Reading keys and figuring out where you are supposed to be on any given plays based on what they are running. That’s the biggest thing. It slows down in real time. That’s how guys come along. Coach (Tony Gibson) does a great job putting us through that, and when you get that you can play fast and make plays.”
Actually, when Benton isn’t watching himself, or West Virginia’s opponents, his favorite team to dissect lies 2,070 miles to the west in Tucson, at the University of Arizona. The Wildcats’ defense was once coached by former WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, and Gibson spend one season in the desert in 2012 as safeties coach, along with multiple other former Mountaineer coaches.
“I like to watch Arizona. They run a 3-3-5 defense as well, so I try to see how teams attack them,” Benton said. “A lot of that stuff is creeping into the Big 12.”
And the Pac-12 has the offenses to match. Washington State, under head coach Mike Leach, runs a variation of the Air Raid, which is used by Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy. Cal’s multiple spread, ran last year under current West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, resembles TCU. And, at least in their pro style sets, Kansas State and Stanford are comparable. How those offenses approach the Arizona defense gleans insights for Benton as to what he could expect in Big 12 play.
“But that works both ways,” Benton said. “Because you don’t see this defense every week, it is hard to figure out how to attack. With that being said, you’ll watch film of a team playing a 3-4 defense and they won’t attack (WVU) the same way. You come in every week knowing what scenarios you expect to see and how you think they will attack and you adjust from there.”
It makes literally every game an early proverbial chess match for the Benton and the Mountaineer defense, who can expect even more surprises with new head coaches at Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas.
“That’s one of the good things about coach Gibby,” Benton said. “He’s one of the best at adjusting on the fly. We will come to the sideline and he gets us in the position we need to be in.”