- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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Kelvin Benjamin has answered the questions more times than he can count, and he has lost interest in the narrative.
The story has been written again and again about the physically gifted receiver who took so long to blossom. But even though Benjamin’s emergence is old news now, even he still manages to surprise with how good he really is.
His coaches and teammates spent two years hyping him, explaining away his shortcomings, pushing him to get better. Now they’re simply watching him do what comes naturally.
After two years of wondering when Florida State’s 6-foot-5 monster of a receiver would emerge, Benjamin has shifted into a far different approach as he prepares for the biggest game of his career.
“It’s just doing the same thing I’ve been doing all year,” he said.
That’s the true measure of Benjamin’s progress. No one needs to ask why his practice performances have so far outpaced his game-day numbers or wonder when he’ll put in the time and effort and study he needs to be great. After Benjamin finished 2013 with nine touchdowns in his final five games, the sophomore has officially reached elite status.
“I knew what he had in him and he’s really grown and developed into one heck of a guy,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Fisher has enjoyed seeing Benjamin develop. His opposition in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship, however, might be having nightmares.
Auburn ranks 103rd nationally in passing defense, and the Tigers’ secondary has had few answers for physically imposing receivers like Benjamin. Texas A&M’s Mike Evans had 11 catches for 287 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn. Mississippi State’s Donte Moncrief caught six passes for 122 yards and two scores. Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham went for 144 yards on six catches, including two touchdowns.
In other words, Benjamin has Auburn’s attention.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” Auburn corner Jonathon Mincy said. “That’s all I’ve been hearing about, is their wide receivers.”
Mincy said Auburn views the matchup as an opportunity to prove its critics wrong, to play man and press coverage against Florida State’s dynamic receivers and challenge Benjamin physically.
Benjamin, however, isn’t buying that.
“Mostly third down, they’ll go man. But it won’t be press coverage,” he said. “They’ll probably play us like Miami played us.”
The Hurricanes tried to take away the deep ball by playing well off Florida State’s receivers and blitzing quarterback Jameis Winston. The plan didn’t keep the Seminoles from cruising to a 41-14 win, but it’s probably worth noting that Benjamin finished with just two catches for 46 yards.
It’s also worth noting that he found the end zone in every game after that.
That’s perhaps what truly separates this version of Benjamin from years past, what’s pushed those stories of unrefined talent to the back burner as the country takes notice of one of college football’s emerging stars. Benjamin isn’t frustrated by failure anymore. He’s motivated by it.
Benjamin’s biggest game this season came against Florida, when he caught nine balls for 212 yards and three TDs. The numbers could’ve been even better. He dropped two potential touchdowns, looking to get upfield before securing the ball. When he trudged back to the sideline afterward, he was already looking for his next chance to prove he could correct the mistakes.
“Maturity,” Fisher said. “Accepting that he made a mistake, corrected the mistake and he’s handled those situations much better. He got to a point where he realizes he can play, and the pressure’s not on, and he has true confidence.”
It’s confidence that’s infectious. Florida State’s other players feed off Benjamin’s big-play heroics. His size and speed and physicality can be demoralizing for the opposition before the game even kicks off. Benjamin has found the secret to his success, and that’s a storyline he’d been waiting to write.
“I really believe now,” he said, “that if you prepare for the test, you’ll pass.”