MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Three years ago, months before the 2013 signing class was complete, then-West Virginia assistant Jake Spavital was asked about his destination on a recent recruiting trip.
His eyes brightened, and his mouth curled into a telling grin.
“Shabazzzzzzzz,” he said with playful emphasis. “There’s a bad man up at Shabazzzzz.”
As in Newark Shabazz High, the school where Al-Rasheed Benton was beginning his senior season.
Weeks later, Benton committed to West Virginia over Penn State, and he remained committed the following January even after Texas A&M afforded Spavital the chance to become a top offensive assistant.
In departure, Spavital called with reassurances Benton would be a great fit in Morgantown. The young coach left that conversation saying, “I just hope I never have to play against you.”
Benton was merely a special-teams player during last season’s Liberty Bowl loss to Texas A&M, but Saturday he emerged as a full-scale contributor, starting at Mike linebacker while Jared Barber recovered from a shoulder injury.
“(The coaches) let me know early in the week, and from there I just let them know I was ready for it,” Benton said. “Like I told them boys when we went out (Saturday): I’ve been training for this moment for two years now.”
In a 41-17 victory over Liberty, the redshirt sophomore lived up to the moment, tying for the team lead with seven tackles—one off his career total entering the game—and making two stops behind the line of scrimmage. One of those came when he ruined a third-down screen by dropping running back Desmond Rice for a 3-yard loss.
“We’ve got a really good defense that I was able to be out there with. A really good defense,” Benton said. “Those guys taught me a lot and got me ready to be out there with them.
“I’m going to be comfortable out there with them. I love the guys to death and I’m wiling to make any play for those guys.”
West Virginia’s relatively comfortable win didn’t feature defensive domination. While Liberty averaged only 3.3 yards per run, big strikes in the passing game allowed the FCS Flames to net 6.1 overall. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson seemed half-despondent afterward.
“He’s not the only one,” Benton said. “I don’t think I had that good of a game. I don’t think that we had that good of a game as a defense.
“Thankfully we were able to get out of there with a win, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to do what we have planned this year.”
Indications are Barber will return for the Maryland game in two weeks; coach Dana Holgorsen said the senior could have dressed Saturday had it been “a little higher-profile game.”
Benton’s production as the top backup in Week 1 reassured coaches he was prepared for extended duty. As did more film study alongside Barber.
“That guy knows a lot. A great player—very smart, a coach’s player,” Benton said. “You can go to the sideline and say ‘Hey, man, where did I go wrong right here?’ and he’ll know.”
No doubt the bye week will find “Coach Barber” and WVU’s actual coaches reviewing missteps from the Liberty game.
“We expect a lot out of ourselves,” Benton said. “We expect a lot out of our teammates. We expect a lot out of our brothers, and we didn’t put our best foot forward.”