From the moment Philip Rivers launched the ball deep downfield during Wednesday’s practice, his pass looked destined to land incomplete well over everyone’s head.
Then out of nowhere came Travis Benjamin, somehow catching up to it in stride as he breezed down the sideline.
Minutes later, number 17 launched another bomb. Sure enough, the speedy wideout raced under it for his second big gain of the afternoon.
“(Travis) is just lightning fast,” fellow wideout Tyrell Williams laughed once practice ended.
After missing most of the offseason recovering from injuries that plagued him throughout the 2016 campaign, Benjamin was up to his usual tricks during mini camp.
“He’s a little rusty coming in and out of his breaks, but his vertical speed is really nice,” noted Head Coach Anthony Lynn. “(His) speed (is a game changer for us). When you put Tyrell on one side and Travis on the other side, that type of speed going vertical can be a nice threat for us.”
It didn’t take long last offseason for Rivers to learn he had something special in Benjamin after he inked a four-year deal to join the Bolts. The quarterback explained he’d never thrown to anyone boasting Benjamin’s pure speed, quickly realizing it would be near impossible to overthrow his newest receiver.
Unfortunately, Benjamin wasn’t able to show off his full arsenal in his first year with the Chargers. He ended the year catching 47 passes for 677 yards with four touchdowns in 14 games despite being slowed by injuries. Still, even in a down year, Benjamin remained one of the game’s most dangerous playmakers. Along with Williams, he tied for the NFL lead with six catches of at least 40 yards.
“It felt good to go back out there at practice and do what I do after I played through injuries all last year,” Benjamin said. “I don’t think I got to really show the type of player I am. After surgery, my main focus was to make sure I had my speed back. Last year I couldn’t really show what I could do, so that humbled me. But I’m moving past that and looking forward to showing what I can do this year. I plan on playing how I do best.”
So how good did it feel to be on the receiving end of some deep passes during mini camp?
Answering that question, the soft-spoken 26-year old’s voice boomed with unbridled passion.
“That was a blessing, man! It’s a blessing to finally be myself again. To finally be able to run fast, play fast and continue to take the top off the coverage and open it up for the other guys. My teammates were telling me I looked fast, but from my aspect, I still don’t see myself as fast enough! The other guys are saying I’m fast, but I know I’ll get faster when training camp gets here.”
Nicknamed “rabbit” because of his speed, Benjamin also struggled to find his groove at punt returner in 2016. After emerging as one of the top returners in the league during his time with the Cleveland Browns, the Chargers removed him from that role midway through the year.
Lynn vowed getting Benjamin rolling in the return game again is a critical focal point heading into the 2017 campaign.
“I think teams fear his speed when they see it, and last year on special teams, I don’t think they really saw it. We have to get him back on track as a punt returner this year so he can be that dangerous threat again.”
Benjamin’s struggles in special teams were particularly frustrating as it’s an area he takes a great amount of pride in.
“That motivates me the most. If I’m not the number one guy at punt returner this year, then I’ve failed the system. I’m going to keep working at it, keep practicing it, and hopefully be at the top at the end of the season. So I’m really looking forward to this year now and putting the past in the past. Looking forward to just catching the ball, making those big plays for Phil and those guys, and making the big plays as a returner.”
One main reason Benjamin is confident he will return to form as one of the NFL’s biggest threats on special teams is the arrival of Special Teams Coordinator-Assistant Head Coach George Stewart. A legend in the coaching circles with over three decades worth of experience, Stewart has made quite the impression on the speedster.
“Oh man, his competitive drive and the way he coaches us has been (amazing). In and out of the huddle; its great. Everywhere he sees me, inside the building or on the field, he looks at me and goes, ‘Hey Benjamin! We’re going to do it! We’re going to do it!’ When you have a guy like that who believes in you, and you believe in the system, the sky’s the limit.”