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Vanderbilt's receiver closing in on records

POSTED: October 15, 2007 5:04 a.m.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Earl Bennett spent hours on the streets of Birmingham, Ala., catching passes from his big brother. Prentice, nine years older than Earl, would fire the football so hard it often left bruises on the aspiring wide receiver.
When time came for Earl Bennett to go to college, none of the Southeastern Conference powerhouses he'd hoped to play for called. Only Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and he chose the SEC's only private school.
"It was kind of crazy and kind of disappointing," Bennett said. "My parents thought I would go to Alabama or Auburn, being an in-state product. But neither school offered me a scholarship. It's their loss, I guess."
Thanks to the brotherly love that created a sure-handed receiver, Bennett has spent the past three seasons making the SEC pay for the lack of attention.
They missed out on a two-time All-SEC receiver who is seven catches from becoming the league's career receptions leader, which could happen Saturday when Vanderbilt hosts No. 24 Georgia. Six catches ties him with record-holder Craig Yeast, who caught 208 for Kentucky.
Bennett's also on pace to become the league's career leader in yards receiving, and he still has seven games left in his junior season. It took Yeast four years.
But Bennett, whose move up the charts is tracked on Vanderbilt's Web site with the headline "My Name is Earl," doesn't talk much about breaking records. He said rewriting the books is great for the school, and his focus is on leading the Commodores (3-2) to their first bowl and first winning record since 1982.
"Earl, he basically does everything for the team," said cornerback Myron Lewis, who is also Bennett's roommate. "He is Vanderbilt football."
His coach, Bobby Johnson, knows how impressive Bennett's play has been.
"I think it's extremely tough if you look at the list of people who are ahead of him and those he has passed. I think it's a pretty monumental achievement in two and a half years," Johnson said.
In his freshman year, Bennett set an SEC record with 79 catches for 876 yards and nine touchdowns, working with current Denver Broncos starter Jay Cutler.
Without Cutler, Bennett followed up with an even better sophomore year. With Chris Nickson in his first season as the starting quarterback, Bennett caught 82 passes for 1,146 yards and six touchdowns. He already has 41 catches for 499 yards this year.
"You have to scheme for him, you have to know where he's at and you better have a plan for him, Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
"He is tough, fast, and oozing with confidence. He continues to make plays, and there is no doubt that he is a pro."
Bennett said he hasn't decided if he will forgo his senior season, though many scouts regard him as a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL draft.
The receiver said he will discuss his future with coaches and family after the season. In the meantime, he's cementing his legacy at Vanderbilt and trying to make his name known.
"I don't know if people will remember my name. I hope they do. Not only my name but the university," Bennett said. "We don't stand out as much as most. I know when people go to look up the record when I'm gone, they'll see my name and Vanderbilt's. They'll know us then."
That's because on a campus where football players aren't hard to spot, one of the biggest stars in school history rarely draws a glance, much less a crowd.
"I just have people stare at me," he said. "They'll walk by not even sure and be like, 'Are you Earl Bennett?"'
With his 6-foot-1, 202-pound frame and short dreadlocks, he's not exactly the norm at Vanderbilt. Yet normal is exactly how life is off the field for Bennett, who can be so obscure his teammates often suffer cases of mistaken identity.
"It's kind of weird because a lot of guys on the team also have dreads, and if people don't know me, they sometimes think it's me," Bennett said.
"Like Myron Lewis, he'll just be walking and people will be like 'Hey Earl,' and he goes along with it. He'll come back to me and be like, 'I just talked to some people across campus and I didn't know who they were, but they thought I was you. So I just played along. They had no idea."'
Sometimes you just don't know a star receiver when you see one.


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