Even though he had served as the backup the last two seasons, senior Cory Benton knew he'd have to prove some doubters wrong if he was to become Purdue's starting center this year.
Of course, that was nothing new for the former walk-on. He had done so before, first making the team as a scout team tight end as a rookie in 2004, then gradually working his way up the depth chart after his switch to offensive line the following year.
But winning a starting spot at center, perhaps the most important position on the offensive line, was the biggest challenge of them all. An impressive showing during the spring, where he outperformed those brought in to compete against him, gave him the edge. Then, when training camp opened last week, it became clear that Benton was No. 1.
"What's not to like about him?" offensive line coach Danny Hope said. "He's a very, very sharp football player, with a lot of quickness."
It's those qualities that won Benton, a 6-foot-3, 287-pounder, the job. That, and he didn't want to see this opportunity pass him by.
"I knew it wasn't going to be given to me," the Indianapolis native said, "and I had to prove that I was the right person for the job. Every time I was in (during the spring), I took advantage of every rep I had and I think I did a decent job of showing I can handle the position."
Benton's rise answered what had been one of the Boilermakers' biggest questions following last year's graduation of two-year starter Robbie Powell. After the season, junior Jared Zwilling moved from defensive tackle to center, as Joe Tiller and Co. sought to solidify the position.
As it turns out, though, the starter in 2008 was already in place. Not that Zwilling, who will likely get the first crack at the job next season, was completely discarded; he's expected to start at left guard.
"Cory's more relaxed at the position than Jared was," Tiller said of center. "Jared struggled with the position in the spring."
It's helped Benton that he got a taste of playing time last season, rotating at left guard with then starter Zach Reckman. He appeared in 12 of Purdue's 13 games, after seeing action in two the season before.
"I think the playing time that Cory has gotten at the guard position has really benefited him," Tiller said. "He smells it too, if you know what I mean, he knows he has a chance to be a starter all year. He had by far his best summer of any summer he's had while at Purdue; he put up some pretty impressive numbers. I think he's worked hard to get himself in this position and I don't think he's about to surrender it."
A graduate of Cathedral High School, Benton wasn't heavily recruited to play Division I football. He did have some opportunities to play lower-division basketball, but when an opportunity came at Purdue, where he was an invited walk-on, it was too good to pass up.
Benton arrived as a tight end, but struggled to get noticed.
"The first year, I was kind of invisible," he said. "That's what it felt like because I was the last-string tight end and there was like eight of us. I was just trying to stay on the team at that point."
In Year 2, however, Benton moved to offensive line, first to tackle, then inside to center. There, he found a good fit.
"Even though it was new, I was able to start working with the second group really soon," said Benton, who was awarded a scholarship prior to last season. "I kind of moved my way up the depth chart really fast, without even knowing what was going on. That was definitely a blessing, because I was able to take advantage and learn from the older guys."
Now that he's climbed his way to No. 1, Benton says he's ready for the next challenge: playing every snap.
"I'll be ready for it," he said. "I've been waiting for it, so I think I'll be more excited than anything."
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