AUBURN, Ala. — Out of breath and with his legs wobbling beneath him, Auburn wide receiver DeAngelo Benton dropped to the ground and immediately pushed his body back up. He reeled off a series of up-downs before gathering himself, bear crawling 5 yards forward to the next line and repeating the sequence.
The punishment continued for the full length of the Tigers’ practice field, at which point the freshman had made amends for an undisclosed transgression.
It’s an indication that the precocious newcomer, one expected to compete for playing time in the Tigers’ thin receiving corps, still is trying to find his way on the Plains.
“He’s a work in progress — getting better but learning a lot,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “He’s got to work at our pace and our way.”
Benton might have erred in judgment last week, but it’s clear Auburn has high hopes and expectations for the 6-foot-2, 192-pound receiver, a freshman in eligibility only, already having turned 21 after two years of qualifying issues.
“I consider Benton not even a freshman anymore,” cornerback Walt McFadden said. “(He) is probably looking the best of anybody.”
Benton and fellow freshman Emory Blake have worked in a session of practice reserved for veterans in the early going. Thursday, Benton practiced in both sessions, getting constant instruction during position drills from wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor, who, as Benton later recited, wants “alignment, assignment and unbelievable effort.”
“Coach Taylor is a straight-up guy,” Benton said. “He doesn’t show favoritism. He wants the best man out. If you learn what you’re supposed to do, you’ll play. ... It makes you work harder. Knowing that you have high expectations, you have to go out there and get the job done.”
Benton’s talent has been indisputable. The receiver was a Parade All-American in 2006 when he committed to LSU, although academic shortcomings have kept him out of the college game until now.
He prepped at Hargrave Military Academy in 2007 and spent last year in his hometown of Bastrop, La., before qualifying academically. All indications pointed to him going with LSU in February, but Benton pulled a signing day shocker by faxing his letter of intent to Auburn amid reports that LSU pulled his scholarship offer.
When Benton reported to Auburn during the summer, teammates saw his potential despite considerable rust from the layoff.
“When he came here, he was really out of shape, but now he’s really gotten into shape and really become part of this team,” quarterback Kodi Burns said. “I think DeAngelo can step up and be one of those go-to guys down the stretch.”
Benton certainly stepped into a favorable situation. Junior receiver Tim Hawthorne remains in a walking boot after breaking his foot this summer. There is no set date for his return. Montez Billings is practicing, but Chizik said the senior still has to clear up an academic issue.
The rest of the receivers on the roster combined for 15 catches last season, so Benton likely will be in the mix.
“Any skill position other than quarterback is usually the position that is more easily adaptable to playing early,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “For a young guy, (Benton’s) made some plays. He’s learning.”
In all aspects. Benton claimed Friday’s up-down punishment was because he “wasn’t in the right place at the right time.” Curiously, the receiver’s hand was in a brace Saturday, preventing him from taking part in drills and briefly setting back his progress.
“He’s got talent,” said Chizik, cautious with his praise. “We’ve really got to cultivate his talent. If he does it the right way, he’s got a chance to be a good football player.”