HOOVER, Ala. – Earl Frison beamed with pride Thursday as he watched his son, Earl Bennett, make the rounds at Southeastern Conference Football Media Days.
Who could have envisioned this? Here was Bennett, in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., standing before a throng of reporters. This is space reserved only for the best of the best.
“How quickly this happened, it really surprises me,” Frison said as he looked on.
Bennett arrived at Vanderbilt two years ago as a wide receiver mostly overlooked in his own state. When Alabama and Auburn declined to offer him a scholarship, Vanderbilt pounced on the opportunity.
After two breathtaking seasons, Bennett has 161 pass receptions and is only 48 away from becoming the SEC’s all-time career leader.
“It’s shocking to me and overwhelming,” Bennett said.
Even VU coach Bobby Johnson admits to being surprised by how quickly Bennett’s star has risen.
“Obviously, you couldn’t foresee him being that close to a record his junior year,” Johnson said. “We knew Earl was a good player when we recruited and signed him, but he’s been pretty special.”
In more ways than one, Bennett made a triumphant return to Birmingham this week. On Tuesday, he was given an Outstanding Citizen Award by the City Council.
On Thursday, media from across the nation wanted to hear his story.
It began at a young age, Frison said, when Bennett showed athletic prowess on the way to becoming a football standout at West End High School.
“He’s always been talented, even when he was a little kid,” Frison said.
Fresh out of high school, Bennett stunned the SEC by snaring 79 passes as a freshman in 2005. Even when everyone in Neyland Stadium knew what was coming, he still caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the season finale to help the Commodores upset Tennessee.
As a sophomore, even as a marked man, Bennett got only better. Playing with a new quarterback in Chris Nickson, Bennett caught 82 passes for 1,146 yards and established himself as one of the nation’s premier receivers. And likely the best in Vanderbilt history.
“Coming out of high school, I knew I wanted to play college football,” he said. “I just didn’t know where.”
Bennett originally committed to Kentucky. He visited Notre Dame. In the end, Vanderbilt won the battle.
“Everybody thinks we stole Earl, but a lot of people knew about Earl,” Johnson said. “Our coaches did a good job of recruiting him. There are a lot of guys out there that blossom late in their senior year in high school or even in their career in college that don’t have the ratings that some people do. That’s what recruiting is all about.
“It’s not a science. That’s the thing about it. Sometimes you take a chance and you make a big coup in recruiting. Sometimes you make mistakes. You try to limit those mistakes as much as you can.”
Bennett, a SEC Coaches’ preseason All-SEC pick, is so productive that Vanderbilt is preparing for the possibility that he could bypass his senior season and make himself eligible for next year’s NFL Draft.
“Certainly you’ve got to be prepared for that,” VU receivers coach Charlie Fisher said. “It could happen because Earl is as established as anybody in the country. Only time will tell, so you don’t know how things will play out, but we know it’s a possibility.
“Everybody sees the same thing we do. He’s getting the attention he deserves because he’s earned it. This is the best football league in America.”
Frison said the family has talked about Bennett’s future, but only briefly.
“We don’t talk a lot about the pros,” he said. “It’s going to come.”
Like everything else in Bennett’s career, it might come sooner than expected.