Bentley thrives as an electrifying teammate

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Illinois’ V’Angelo Bentley watches his team from the sideline during the game against Kent State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. 

By Charlotte Carroll

V’Angelo Bentley is a team player. He’s quick to praise his teammates, his brothers. But he’s also quick to defend what he does best.

While highlighting Clayton Fejedelem’s touchdown-stopping run Saturday against Kent State, Bentley was asked who was faster: Fejedelem or him?

“Nah, I’m faster,” the 5-foot-10-inch, soft-spoken Bentley said with a laugh.

It’s this quickness that can excite a stadium at any moment and has garnered respect from his coaches.

“He’s so natural,” said special teams’ coordinator Alex Golesh. “He sees and feels things as a returner. As a kick returner, it’s relatively easy. But, as a punt returner, you got to have something about you to know ‘Hey, when I look down … when you look away from the coverage unit, I might get sacked.’ And to me, that takes a different kind of kid. I couldn’t do it.”

The star defensive back and returner needs just 116 kick return yards to break Pierre Thomas’ Illinois career record of 1,495 yards. Bentley currently ranks third on Illinois’ all-time list.

But that isn’t Bentley’s only contribution to the Illini history books.

He is the first Illinois player in school history to record kick, punt, interception and fumble returns for TDs in his career. Perhaps his most important return ever was a returned fumble recovery for a touchdown against Minnesota on Homecoming last season. Bentley squirted out of a scrum of bodies and scampered into the end zone to give the Illini an enormous win.

On Saturday, Bentley recorded 85 punt return yards and 25 kickoff return yards. He didn’t play much at cornerback.

When looking at his punt return game, Bentley said the team talks in terms of net punts: how far their opponent is punting and how far they are returning the ball. Against Kent State, Illinois returned 83 yards compared to Kent State’s 361 yards punted.

Not getting much defensive playing time, Bentley was blunt about what he needs to do this season for his return game.

“In my return game, I’ve got to get in the end zone,” Bentley said. “I don’t know what else to do but that.”

To do just that, head coach Bill Cubit has emphasized how key Bentley’s role is to the Illini. Cubit has talked more with Golesh about finding ways to set Bentley up behind his blockers.

“A lot of teams don’t practice that as much because it’s a safe play,” Cubit said. “You just want to field the ball and such. For us, it’s a big offensive play because of him.”

Cubit added that Bentley brings to special teams what running back Josh Ferguson does to the offense in terms of excitement. For both players he said, “you’re out of your seat and ready for a big play when they get the ball.”

It’s a talent Golesh has noticed and has stressed with his special teamers.

“We rally around V a lot,” Golesh said. “We talk about on punt returns, on kick return-block for a purpose. Block for V to spring one. The energy that a big return creates, maybe you don’t even realize it, is immense … He just being out there creates an energy. You know every time he just touches the ball as a returner he can take it to the house.”

For Bentley, part of being a good teammate is always bringing that momentum.

“That’s what you do when you’re back there at returner. You’re supposed to be an electrifying guy and that’s what I want to be.”

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@charlottecrrll