Bennett’s commitment pays offBy Jeremy Smith Published 11:39am Wednesday, January 5, 2011
What began as a tumultuous offseason for A.J. Bennett led to a return to glory for John Essex’s do-it-all specialist.
While Bennett would have preferred his team squeak out one more win and make the playoffs, the 5-5 mark the Hornets posted was their best in recent memory. And it will not hurt the memories of his senior year when he looks back on a campaign that saw him make the ASWA all-state team for the second straight time.
“It means a lot,” Bennett said of the honor, choosing to focus on what it meant for his school rather than for himself. “It feels like we’re moving forward and not backward.”
Bennett made all-state as a wide receiver after his junior season, a campaign that saw him haul in more than 1,000 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in a spread offense. But the end of the school year led to the dismissal of the head coach Bennett had grown to love, prompting him to consider transferring.
“I was worried a whole lot because I had to adjust to a new offense and a new coach,” Bennett said.
That new coach was not hired until late in the summer, a decision that was announced while Bennett was visiting relatives in Maryland. Once he returned to Demopolis, he faced a decision. After meeting with new head coach Jerome Antone, Bennett chose to continue playing with the Hornets.
“It doesn’t seem like he missed a beat,” Antone said of the way Bennett adjusted to a new scheme after committing himself to John Essex. “He kind of picked it up a bit.”
The changing of the scheme, the coach and the quarterback put Bennett behind the proverbial eight ball in terms of production. But Antone found ways to get him the ball.
“Basically what we wanted to do was center our offense around A.J. to make sure he got the ball in his hands as much as possible,” Antone said. The decision paid off as Bennett tallied more than 500 yards rushing and more than 700 yards receiving. He also sparked the Hornets with his kick return efforts and served as the team’s long snapper in addition to recording seven interceptions as a defensive back.
“There’s nothing the could couldn’t do,” Antone said of Bennett’s efforts. But Bennett’s greatest contribution and growth may have come from an intangible standpoint.
“I grew a whole lot from last year. I had to do what I could to help the team win,” Bennett said. “I learned that it is a team game. Without the team and the coach, I wouldn’t have made all-state this year. I thank my teammates for that.”
Antone said it is Bennett’s leadership and work ethic that will most be missed once the senior graduates in May.
“As time passed, he became a leader on the football team. He grew in that aspect. He’s very attentive and appreciates everything a coach does for him,” Antone said. “He’s one of those type kids that, if I had a daughter, I would love for him to date her. John Essex is going to miss him. The community is going to miss him.”