Getting the ball in the hands of Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Bennis is one thing, but Benn already has his fingerprints all over the team.

Getting the ball in the hands of Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Bennis is one thing, but Benn already has his fingerprints all over the team.

The star junior didn't grab anybody by the shirt and haul them out of the club deemed off-limits by coach Ron Zook during an early-morning trip to a bar in the spring practice season. But, unhappy with a lack of commitment by his teammates, Benn took the names and passed them along.

In the process, Benn grabbed the Illini by the neck and sent a clear message: He's here to win, and anybody in orange and blue should either get on board or get out of town.

Quarterback Juice Williams and Benn "went to the check the bars,'' Benn said. "It was 2 or 3 in the morning. We caught some guys. We set a tone. We can't wait until the beginning of the season or the end of camp. We have to buckle down. We all have to be on the same page, and I set out to do that.

"Whether my teammates love me or not, I'm here to play football. That was a big turning point. Now guys look at me as a leader. They look at me to say something. I gained a lot of respect with the guys for doing that.''

Benn took the names to Zook. With a few extra sprints for the entire roster, the Illini learned there's somebody else who expects them to get in line.

A first-round NFL prospect if he jumps to the draft as expected following the season, Benn chose to stay in the present rather than start counting his millions. When Illinois opens preseason camp Thursday and begins the season against Missouri in St. Louis on Sept. 5, the Illini plan to bounce back from a 5-7 record last season – "a slap in the face,'' Benn said – that kept them from the program's first back-to-back bowl trips since 1992.

The season fell apart with a string of bad losses and, not coincidentally, bad chemistry. So Benn is not thinking about the NFL. He's not worried about padding his stats to impress the scouts. He wants to win.

"I saw it happening last year in the beginning of the season,'' Benn said. "A lot of guys weren't doing what we needed to do. It disrupted the team.

"I'm not thinking about my touchdown numbers. I'm here to do any and everything to win. If I have to block, that's what I do. I'm focused on getting the ball in the end zone anyway I can. If all of us come together, our individual goals will be fulfilled.''

While Benn won't talk about the NFL, his name is already bouncing around the league. Mock drafts put him as a high first round pick. The Sporting News has him going fifth. Walter Camp put him at No. 8 with SI.com slotting him at No. 9. Benn already earned preseason first-team All-America from four major preseason publications, including one that put him as the top receiver in the nation. ESPN called him the best player in the Big Ten.

"He's not talking about the NFL,'' Williams said. "We don't talk about it. That's very hard to do, but that's the type of person he is. He's going to be a top 10 pick. It's hard not to talk about the NFL. He's dedicated himself to his team. That says a lot about his character.''

Serving as a role model is nothing new to Benn, whose older brother, Trulon Henry, eventually followed his lead after serving time in prison following a robbery conviction. Henry landed last season at College of DuPage in suburban Chicago, and the junior college sophomore safety is a Division I prospect.

A startling mix of size and speed, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Benn has followed a strict diet, built speed through track, gained strength in the weight room and stayed away from the wrong crowd. Supremely confident, Benn turned down offers from the game's big names to sign with Illinois, a program that won eight games in the previous four seasons before he arrived on campus in January, 2007.

In his first season, Benn helped Illinois to nine wins and a Rose Bowl berth.

"I met him when he was going into his senior year of high school,'' Williams said. "They came down to a camp. He looked the same, the same full goatee and everything.''

The freshman of the year in the Big Ten in 2007 when he caught 54 passes for 676 yards and two touchdowns despite a shoulder that wouldn't stay in place, Benn grabbed 67 passes for 1,055 yards and three touchdowns last season while also rushing for two TDs. Benn had more than 100 yards receiving in four consecutive games last season (a first in school history). He ranks seventh in career yards and eighth in career receptions at Illinois. Still, that's a small number of scores from such a playmaker, but Benn isn’t worried.

"I love the game of football so much, those types of things don't frustrate me,'' Benn said. "I just want to win. I've wanted to win since I was 6. I'll do anything I have to do to win.''

The Big Ten's best passing team last season, Illinois has the best set of receivers in the league. Transfer Jarred Fayson, eligible after sitting out a year following his transfer from Florida, has the same kind of build and speed as Benn. Senior Jeff Cumberland will start his third year, and redshirt freshman Jack Ramsey looks to make an impact.

Twelve of the team's top 13 pass catchers return from last season, but getting the ball in Benn's hands is a priority for first year offensive coordinator Mike Schultz.

"There's some things that we've kind of come up with that we can do differently to get the ball in his hands, whether it be as a returner, running back or receiver,'' Zook said.

Benn already has his fingerprints all over his team. Now he just needs the ball in his hands.

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

Arrelious Benn file
Preseason accolades
Biletnikoff Award Candidate
Preseason first-team All-America by Athlon, Lindy's, and Phil Steele
Preseason Big Ten offensive player of the year by Lindy's
No. 1 receiver in nation by Phil Steele
No. 2 receiver in nation by Lindy's
No. 25 player in nation by Sporting News
No. 1 player in Big Ten by ESPN.com
Preseason all-Big Ten by Sporting News, Athlon, Lindy's and Phil Steele

Stats
Receiving
Year/Catches/Yards/TDs/Long
2007/54/676/2/56
2008/67/1,055/3/54
Totals/121/1,731/5/56
Rushing
Year/Attempts/Yards/TDs/Long
2007/32/158/0/23
2008/23/101/2/17
Totals/55/259/2/23
Kick returns
Year/Attempts/Yards/TDs/Long
2007/10/280/1/90
2008/20/398/0/63
Totals/30/678/1/90
Punt returns
Year/Attempts/Yards/TDs/Long
2008/15/114/0/31
Career Highs
Receptions: 12 vs. Minnesota, 2008
Receiving Yards: 181 vs. Minnesota, 2008
Long Reception: 56, twice (last time vs. USC, Rose Bowl)
Rushes: 5, twice (last time vs. Eastern Illinois, 2008)
Rushing Yards: 48 vs. Eastern Illinois, 2008
Long Rush: 23 at Syracuse, 2007
Long KO Return: 90 vs. Penn State, 2007
Personal
Born: Sept. 8, 1988. Son of Denise Benn. Full name is Arrelious Markus Benn. Chose Illinois over Florida State, Notre Dame and Maryland.
 
Illinois football schedule
Home games in CAPS
Time, TV where available
Sept 5. -- vs. Missouri, in St. Louis, 2:40 p.m., ESPN
Sept. 12 -- ILLINOIS STATE, 6 p.m., BTN
Sept. 26 -- at Ohio State
Oct. 3 -- PENN STATE
Oct. 10 -- MICHIGAN STATE, 11 a.m.
Oct. 17 -- at Indiana, 6 p.m., BTN
Oct. 24 -- at Purdue
Oct. 31 -- MICHIGAN, 2:30 p.m., ABC
Nov. 7 -- at Minnesota
Nov. 14 -- NORTHWESTERN
Nov. 27 -- at Cincinnati
Dec. 5 -- FRESNO STATE, 11:30 a.m., BTN

Preseason camp schedule

Thursday Split practice  TBA            Memorial Stadium
Friday       Split practice  TBA            Memorial Stadium
Saturday  Split practice   TBA           Memorial Stadium
Aug. 9       Media day                          Memorial Stadium
Aug. 10     Practice          3:30 p.m.      Camp Rantoul
Aug. 11     Practice          3:30 p.m.      Camp Rantoul
Aug. 12     Practice          8:05 a.m.      Camp Rantoul
Aug. 12     Practice          6:15 p.m.      Camp Rantoul
Aug. 13     Practice          3:30 p.m.      Camp Rantoul
Aug. 14     Practice          8:05 a.m.       Camp Rantoul
Aug. 14     Practice          6:15 p.m.      Camp Rantoul
Aug. 15    Scrimmage     6:30 p.m.      Rantoul High School
Aug. 17     Practice          8:05 a.m.       Camp Rantoul
Aug. 17     Practice          6:15 p.m.      Camp Rantoul
Aug. 18     Practice          3:30 p.m.      Camp Rantoul
Aug. 19     Practice          3:30 p.m.      Camp Rantoul
Aug. 20     Practice          3:30 p.m.      Camp Rantoul
Aug. 21     Practice          3:30 p.m.      Camp Rantoul
Aug. 22     Practice          3:30 p.m.      Camp Rantoul
(Aug. 29    Fan Appreciation Day  TBA Memorial Stadium)