Tennessee coach Josh Heupel’s staff hit the road this week to make its first stops of the spring evaluation period, and the Vols didn’t wait long to send one of their coaches to Kansas to take a closer look at Malik Benson. He’s already planning to return the favor within the next couple months.
Benson, a freshman wide receiver at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, said Alex Golesh, Tennessee’s offensive coordinator and tight ends coach, stopped at his school Friday to watch his team’s practice. One of the nation’s top junior-college receivers, Benson said he expects the Vols to host him on an official visit the weekend of June 10.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Benson said he’s still in the process of setting up his first few official visits. But he said he plans to take official visits to LSU the weekend of June 3 and Georgia the weekend of June 17 in addition to seeing the Vols.
A former standout at Lansing (Kan.) High School, Benson received a scholarship offer from Tennessee nearly two months ago and now is being pursued by at least 25 schools. He said the Vols are one of the teams recruiting him hardest, along with LSU, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Oregon.
He has been interested in visiting Tennessee since learning of his offer from the Vols on Feb. 24. They have stayed in frequent contact with him since then, led by new wide receivers coach Kelsey Pope, and Benson said he’s now on the verge of finalizing his plans for a trip to Knoxville as he begins to move toward a possible summer decision.
“I should be locking it in this weekend,” said Benson, who caught 43 passes for 1,229 yards and 11 touchdowns during his freshman season at Hutchinson.
Benson said he’s hoping to take all five of his official visits by this summer.
“The last two weekends in May, I’ll probably try to set up some then,” he said. “But I’m not too sure where (they will be).”
Pope, who was promoted to replace former Tennessee wide receivers coach Kodi Burns last month, informed Benson of his offer from the Vols in February while he was still serving as an offensive analyst. Benson has continued to build a strong relationship with Pope over the past couple months while also getting to know Heupel, Golesh and other members of Tennessee’s staff.
“I’ve got a good relationship with them, so I’m talking to them two, three times a week,” Benson said. “I talk to Pope almost every other day — I’ll text him. And then, once a week, I’ll get on FaceTime and talk to everybody — Heupel and (senior offensive analyst Max) Thurmond, all them people.
“Their message to me is just that they all want me and stuff like that. I could be a difference-maker. I could really help their program. They can’t wait for me and my family to come see it.”
After stopping at Hutchinson on Friday, Golesh made it clear to Benson that he liked what he saw from the coveted wide receiver during the Blue Dragons’ practice.
“He just came by and watched me practice,” Benson said of Golesh. “I talked to him on the phone, and he just told me that he was glad that he got to come out and see me, and he’s excited for the future. He was telling me everything he liked that he saw (Friday).”
Asked specifically what caught Golesh’s attention on the field, Benson said, “The speed.” He said he hasn’t been timed in the 40-yard dash since arriving at Hutchinson, but “hopefully this summer we (will) time them.”
Tennessee has continued to build momentum on the recruiting trail over the past several weeks. Last month, the Vols made a splash by adding a commitment from five-star Class of 2023 quarterback Nicholaus Iamaleava of Long Beach, Calif.
“At my position, seeing they are recruiting a guy like that — at my position, I need the ball, so that’s really going to help,” Benson said, referring to Iamaleava. “When I sit down and look at the five places I go, then, after I go see it, that’s really going to help. Which schools have got quarterbacks that can get me the ball and stuff like that?”
Benson said Alabama wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins also stopped at his school on Friday. Earlier this week, Bryan McClendon, Georgia’s passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach, also traveled to Hutchinson to take a closer look at Benson.
A little more than two weeks ago, he named a top 11 of Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida State. With Benson planning to graduate in December and enroll at the school of his choice in January, he said he hopes to make his college decision before the start of his sophomore season at Hutchinson.
“I just want to get my final decision of where I’m going sometime in July,” he said