CONYERS, Ga. — Justin Benton isn’t about to sit around and wait until he cracks a high school football team’s depth chart to show his gridiron ability.
That much was clear based on the Veterans Middle School rising eighth grader’s presence at Saturday’s Battle of the Counties football game tryouts sponsored by Raw Recruiting, a recruiting service that focuses on showcasing the talents of football players in Newton, Rockdale, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties.
Benton shined during the 7-on-7-style tryout for the second annual Battle of the Counties football game slated for December as one of five Newton County middle school ballers out of the approximately 20 athletes who showed up to Salem High to test their skills and learn from coaches.
“I feel like I performed really well,” Benton said. “I could’ve been better, but overall, I think I performed really well.”
Benton could perhaps offer the same assessment about the way he played for the NewRock League runners-up Veterans Middle Generals after the defender finished his seventh grade season with 31 tackles and six sacks.
“I was the top team tackler for my team last year while playing middle linebacker,” he said. “I also played defensive end in the championship game. Sadly we lost that game, but there’s always next year.”
Next year is exactly why Benton spent a muggy and intermittently rainy Saturday afternoon on the Salem High soccer fields. He’s intent on getting as much summer football and camp action as possible, especially given the fact that he knows college coaches are reaching for the film of high-caliber middle schoolers more and more these days.
“I feel like it’s amazing how you can already expect offers and stuff like that in middle school, so it makes me want to work even harder because you never know who’s watching,” he said.
If Benton rounds into a high-level college football prospect, it wouldn’t be a shock, given the stock he comes from. Benton’s father Philip Benton was a Georgia Bulldogs player from 1992 to 1995 who lettered for the Dawgs during the Hines Ward era.
The elder Benton is a Newton High product, and Justin makes no bones about wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“He’s a really big influence on me,” Justin Benton said. “He’s my dad. But he trains me sometimes. He helps me with my football awareness and football knowledge, and it’s easy for him to do that since I’m a linebacker and he played linebacker too. And he also played d-end like I am. I’ve gotten bigger and stronger since last year, and I credit a lot of that to him. We just started on the bench press and I’m increasing weight every week.”
Benton, standing at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, is already starting to look the part of a difference maker on the football field. But he’s not just content with having eye-popping measureables. Even as a middle schooler Benton said he’s striving to grasp the cerebral part of the game.
“At the end of the year at Veterans last year, it was really good,” he said. “I was really good. But at the beginning of the year, I didn’t really have everything together. The beginning of the year wasn’t really good at all. But I’ve improved by learning my linebacker position, like how to fill holes, knowing my assignments and what plays to call.”
According to Benton, former Veterans star running back Willis Shepherd, III — now a freshman already vying for playing time at Salem High — had a lot to do with that improvement.
“Willis had a big influence on that when he was here,” he said. “He went hard on me at practice, and I went hard on him too. It made us both better.”
Now with his last year before playing with the high school big boys, Benton said he’s depending on a busy summer of football camps to get him ready for the 2018 season and, ultimately, to hit the ground running in high school.
“I’ll be going to a lot of local camps, but also some out of state camps,” He said. “Football University, Adidas Camp, Georgia and Clemson and Florida State camps. It’ll help me get better. Since I’m going to Newton after next year like my dad, I’m expecting big things.”