Prep Football Special: East Rowan LB Christian Bennett

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, August 23, 2017

By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY — East Rowan junior linebacker Christian Bennett never played in a jayvee game, so he’s on track for a career as one of the leading tacklers in school history.

“I was supposed to play jayvee my freshman year, but then we had an injury at linebacker,” Bennett said.

So Bennett got to play varsity against Salisbury on opening night in 2015. He made eight tackles in a 33-0 victory. He’s been in East’s lineup ever since.

On Oct. 2, 2015, East played at Hickory Ridge, with wind gusting and Hurricane Joaquin dumping sheets of water on the Mustangs and Ragin’ Bulls. East lost, 20-7, in unforgettable conditions, but that  also was the night Bennett (6-0, 215 pounds) established himself as a future star.

“I just remember how cold it was and how wet it was,” Bennett said. “That seems like a long time ago, but I I did make a few plays and I do remember the P.A. announcer calling out my name a lot.”

Bennett finished his freshman season with 53 tackles.

As a sophomore, he progressed in every way. As young as he was, his teammates looked to him for leadership, and he accepted that challenge. He pushed his teammates. He made the defensive calls. He got guys lined up right.

While he’d been rock-steady as a freshman, Bennett developed into a big-play guy as a sophomore. There were two forced fumbles against Concord and two more against Hickory Ridge. There was a safety against South Rowan. There was an interception and a fumble-return TD against Salisbury.

Bennett was first team All-Rowan County, unusual for a sophomore, as well as All-South Piedmont Conference.

Bennett came to East from Erwin Middle School where he’d earned rave reviews as a running back. He’ll still show up in East’s offensive backfield on occasion, but his focus is defense now.

“I think the biggest thing that separates him is he really wants to be good,” new East head coach John Fitz said. “A lot of people tell you that they want to be good, but he make the extra effort that it takes.”

Bennett has stayed busy since last season. He plays basketball for the Mustangs in the winter and competes in track in the spring in events as diverse as the 100 meters and shot put. He was third in the South Piedmont Conference in the shot put.

“It’s been busy, but I’ve tried to get in the weight room when I didn’t have basketball or track,” Bennett said. “I think the differences people will see in me on the field this year are more strength, more tackles for loss, better footwork and a more vocal style of leadership. I like being that guy who gets everyone hyped up.”

Bennett has also been working overtime in the hallways. He helped get 6-foot-6 basketball teammate Elton Hooper out for football this year, and Hooper has a chance to be a factor as a defensive end.

“You can’t teach 6-6,” Bennett said. “Trying to throw a football over Elton is like trying to throw it over a goal post.”

Opening night didn’t go well for the Mustangs. In the 39-25 loss to North Stanly, East’s offense lost three fumbles to put the defense in bad positions. East also allowed North Stanly star Cameron Davis to rack up more than 300 rushing yards and four TDs.

But adversity is the time when leaders are needed most. Bennett made a lot of tackles, but he didn’t point any fingers at guys who didn’t.

“We have things to work on and I have things to work on,” Bennett said. “We were all very anxious to win that first game, but we made too many mistakes. It was small things, things we can fix.”

If Bennett talks a lot like a coach, well, it’s because he’s mature and experienced. He’s been on the field at tough venues like West Rowan and Crest, and he’s had to grow up in a hurry.

“Obviously, he’s not a senior, but his teammates look at him like he’s a senior,” Fitz said. “He’s just one of those leader-type kids.”