The injuries started in August 2009. Bennett, coming off his redshirt season in 2008, tore his anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament in preseason camp. Needless to say, he missed the entire season.
Bennett saw limited playing time at the start of 2010 because of a dislocated thumb and a knee sprain. He played in four games. Then he tore the MCL in his right knee and missed seven weeks of UConn’s Fiesta Bowl season.
In 2011, Bennett seemed ready to play a major role on the offensive line. He played against Vanderbilt and then made his first career starts against Iowa State (Sept. 16) and Buffalo (Sept. 24). The coaches were excited about his progress. A healthy Bennett, they said, could bring stability to UConn’s offensive line.
But two days before the Huskies played Western Michigan on Oct. 1, Bennett was lost for the remainder of the season because he tore the ACL in his left knee during practice.
Paul Pasqualoni announced the loss of Bennett after that 38-31 loss to Western Michigan and the devastation of the moment was obvious on the face of UConn’s head coach as he spoke to the media.
“It’s a shame because Jimmy is playing the best football of his career,” Pasqualoni said. “He was really starting to come on as the left tackle. Just very, very unfortunate. It was his good knee, not his bad knee. He just twisted it … Pass protection and blew it out.”
Bennett is back now for his senior season. It’s not hard to spot him on the field. He’s 6-foot-9 and 309 pounds. His head is shaved. And, yes, he wears braces on both knees. George DeLeone, UConn’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, says it is a tribute to Bennett’s work ethic that he has battled through so much adversity to get to this point.
"The first practices [this preseason] were rough," Bennett said after a recent practice. "I'm getting back into it. I feel good about it. Every once in a while you have a bad day.
"I've done this before. This time was a lot easier. There was a lot less stress on the body. You've just got to push yourself and get through [the rehab]. I've come back even stronger than I was."
John Bennett traveled from Alexandria, Va., to watch practice and take pictures of his son at UConn last Saturday. Walking out of the Shenkman Center, he talked about how proud he is of Jimmy for having the resolve to overcome so many injuries.
“But the thing that really makes me proud is he’s getting an education,” John Bennett said. "That's the important thing."
Bennett made the Big East All-Academic Team in 2009 and 2011. The fact he has maintained his academic focus through so much adversity says something for his character and it hasn't been lost on the coaching staff.
Bennett missed spring practice as he continued to rehab. He didn’t return to unrestricted contact until Aug. 3, the day UConn began preseason practice. He admits he was rusty. He admits he missed being on the field last season, especially because the offensive line became a chaotic situation with players moving around as Pasqualoni searched for the right combination.
Even with center Moe Petrus and tackle Mike Ryan anchoring the offensive line last season, UConn gave up 41 sacks (for a loss of 257 yards). That gave the Huskies the dubious distinction of ranking 117th of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in sacks. The Huskies also ranked 84th in passing offense, giving opponents a pretty good idea how to defend UConn.
"That's the key to the system," Bennett said. "We've got to protect. UConn has always been a running team. The key is to protect the quarterback. In practice, we've been trying to find our breakdowns, then we're working on correcting our mistakes so they don't happen again."
Pasqualoni says UConn’s offensive line remains a work in progress. Along with Bennett, you are going to hear the names of Adam Masters, Steve Greene, Tyler Bullock, Alex Mateas, Kevin Friend and Stephen Brown. But if you believe offensive production begins with great line play, Bennett is the guy to watch.
"Everyone on the line is making calls," Bennett said. "We're starting to pick it all up."
If Bennett stays healthy and assumes a leadership role for UConn, the Huskies could show drastic improvement offensively. Even though he couldn't practice during spring drills, he attended all the position meetings and continued to learn. Bennett said he felt that was good for chemistry and teamwork along the line.
"I don't feel pressure," he said. "And If I mess up, I can count on everybody else [on the line] to pick it up for me. It's just going out there and playing football."