Prior to the 2016 season, USF wide receiver Zach Benjamin decided to walk-on with the Arizona Wildcats, which seems like it would have given him the chance to play right away despite transferring.
But that’s not how the NCAA saw it, and Benjamin sat out the 2016 campaign.
“I thought particularly as a walk-on he should’ve been eligible last year,” Rich Rodriguez reiterated after a recent spring practice. “There are several rules the NCAA needs to look at, particularly walk-ons and regarding their immediate eligibility and when you can put ‘em on scholarship, and I think he should’ve been eligible. I think it’s silly that he wasn’t.”
“It was a weird process, because both me and the coaches thought coming in here thought I was eligible,” Benjamin added. “We had talked to some other people saying that we would be okay, and it might’ve been three weeks before the season — halfway through camp — we kind of found out there’s probably a good chance that I wasn’t going to be eligible for whatever reason, and we never really found out a solid, official reason or response back.”
“It wasn’t fun watching from the sidelines and knowing you want to help out your team having a rough season. It definitely wasn’t a good one.”
As a walk-on, Benjamin probably could have gone wherever he pleased, but there were some reasons that he chose Arizona.
“I know the offense here they love to throw it; it’s a great offense,” he explained of his choice to come to Tucson. “I know RichRod is one of the best offensive minds in the game, so I was really excited to have an opportunity here. I just wanted to come out west and play in this conference.”
Now running with the ones and twos instead of the scout team, Benjamin is starting to make waves in practice.
“I think the biggest thing is just taking those real reps with the team and not just being on scout team,” he explained of his progress. “Being in the meetings, learning the playbook like the back of my hand, but taking those real reps with the actual team and knowing that I might be contributing this year and maybe help the offense.”
Despite running with the top teams in practice, one fellow receiver actually sees less of Benjamin this year because they’re now in different workout groups.
“I joke with him all the time like I never see you anymore, where you been at?” Shun Brown said. “Last year we had the same workout and we was always around each other, but this year our workouts are separate so I never get to see him.”
“But that guy loves to work,” Brown continued. “He’s gonna have a big season next year.”
Having a year off in the middle of a college career might not be the worst thing though. We saw Cayleb Jones come in and have huge success as a big, transfer receiver.
“Coming back into things, especially at this speed, I think that year on the scout team really helped me get back into things,” Benjamin said. “Get back into routes, mechanics, and it was just a big year for me.”
“I think Zach runs the best comeback out of all the receivers,” Shawn Poindexter said of what stands out about Benjamin now. “That just shows that sitting out a year and perfecting his craft, his body, and his space shows that he’s going to be a huge asset for us this year.
“Watching Zach from scout to us, there wasn’t a big difference because Zach brought his all during scout and he’s doing it now,” Poindexter continued. “He knows he’s going to have to compete for a spot right now, and if he continues to work hard, he’s going to find a spot on the field this year.”
With Poindexter at 6-foot-5 and Benjamin at 6-foot-4, that’ll give whoever is throwing balls for the Wildcats some big targets all over the field.
“I think having two tall receivers really stresses the safeties,” explained Poindexter. “It opens up a lot in the slot and the run game too.”
All the praise from his teammates is probably due to Benjamin’s initial feelings when he set foot in Tucson last summer.
“I think it was a little different at first just being the new kid and a lot of guys we’re probably like ‘who’s this guy?’, it’s almost like being a freshman again,” he added about his feelings when he first showed up in Tucson. “But I was just trying to work hard, put my head down and make plays, and show them I can play here.”
Keeping his head down also applies to his financial status at U of A, which is still a walk-on despite being a likely rotation receiver in 2017.
“I try not to bring it up,” Benjamin said about becoming a scholarship player at Arizona. “I’m trying to earn a spot at this point.”
“Maybe during the summer if I show out enough during the spring,” he added about when he’d like to get a scholarship. “We’ll see.”
“I think just showing them I know the playbook and those plays,” Benjamin continued about what he’s focusing on this spring. “For (the coaches) to have confidence in me and say okay, now we can put him out there and we can trust him in the fall.”
“I like him,” Brown tacked on. “He’s a cool dude and fun to be around, love his work ethic, and the sky’s the limit for that guy.”