TALLAHASSEE -- Duke must find a way to slow down Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin if the No.20 Blue Devils want to have a chance of upsetting the top-ranked Seminoles in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
That’s a tall order, considering Duke coach David Cutcliffe admits his squad doesn’t “have anybody that can line up and match up physically” with the 6-5, 234-pound Benjamin.
“We’ll be working all week on that answer,” Cutcliffe said.
The Blue Devils (10-2, 6-2 ACC) face Florida State on Saturday and must come up with schemes to defend Benjamin, who had 212 yards receiving and three touchdowns against Florida in the Seminoles’ regular-season finale.
Benjamin has seven touchdown receptions in the past four games and his 12 overall are tied for the fourth-most during a season in school history. He has the look of an NFL receiver in street clothes, and that’s before Benjamin gets on the field and runs by smaller defensive backs.
The Blue Devils only have two defensive backs on the first- or second-team taller than 6-foot — 6-1 cornerback Garett Patterson and 6-2 safety Jeremy Cash.
“Benjamin is probably one of the rarest athletes in college football, with his size and his speed,” Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “He has great hands, great leaping ability. I think the best way to defend against somebody like that is to challenge them up front. What we’ve done all year is we’ve been physical with receivers, and we’re going to try and be physical with them, as well.”
The red zone is one of the biggest areas of concern.
Benjamin caught touchdowns of 45 and 29 yards against the Gators, but he’s one of Jameis Winston’s favorite targets near the end zone.
The two constantly worked on the fade route during the summer to exploit smaller defenders. One of the most impressive plays of the season came on an incomplete pass in which Benjamin was positioned along the back of the end zone and caught the ball higher than the field goal crossbar, but landed out of bounds.
“I know it’s unfair at the end of the day because a lot of cornerbacks are like 5-11 [or slightly taller],” Benjamin said “I’m going to get it at the highest point. It doesn’t really matter where he’s at.
“I’m going to get the ball at the end of the day.”
Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner said it takes help to defend Benjamin. The first-team All-ACC cornerback explained that defenders have to play to their help in coverage and be technically sound.
The task hasn’t always been so difficult. The redshirt sophomore only played three years of high school football and is still learning the position. Benjamin said the goal is to play small — running precise routes, being quick in and out of cuts — and let his size be a natural advantage.
Benjamin is “playing as if he has no ability,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “‘I’m the worse player on the team. I have to run my routes. I’ve got to have technique. I’ve got to do this to get open.’
“When you combine that with his size and speed, then you have a dominant player. He truly understands that.”