Versatile and selfless Malachi Bennett has a nose for the ball: “He’s going to make the play”

By Dustin Dopirak —

Keon Handley’s son and quarterback Eric Handley took a helmet to the knee during Fairfield (Ala.) Prep’s September game against John Carroll Catholic of Birmingham, and the elder Handley found himself suddenly in need of someone to run his offense.

As he usually does when he needs something done and done right, he turned to senior Malachi Bennett and asked him to step from wide receiver to behind center where he would play quarterback with a run-heavy package.

“I pulled Malachi to the side and said, ‘I’m putting the game on your back,’” Handley said. “‘I need you to get coach out of here.’ He said, ‘I got you.’ And he found a way. We called a lot of designed runs for him and we let him go.”

Bennett, who had started at quarterback as a freshman, ran for a 55-yard touchdown and threw for a 6-yarder to account for both of Fairfield’s scores in a 13-7 win.

“Whatever we got to do to win,” Bennett told The Daily Hoosier. “Just step up and do the job. It felt regular because I had played quarterback my ninth grade year. When I got back there, I just took a deep breath and just played.”

That, Handley said, is the character of the player Indiana landed Tuesday afternoon when Bennett announced his commitment to the Hoosiers on his Twitter account. The three-star recruit, who will sign a letter of intent Wednesday, has proven willing to do whatever his coaches have asked him to both as a football and basketball player. The 6-foot-2, 180-pounder played wide receiver, quarterback and safety on the football squad and was an effective two-way guard on a Fairfield basketball team that claimed the first state title in its history in 2020, winning the Class 5A crown.

“He knows how to lead by example,” Handley said. “He leads with his play. He leads with his character. He does things the right way. He’s selfless, and that’s the biggest thing I love about the kid. He was one of our top scorers in basketball, but he took on the task of guarding everyone’s top scorer on the road to the state title. He sacrificed his scoring to play defense to lead the team to that state title. He did the dirty work. A kid like that, they don’t come a dime a dozen.”

Selfless though he may be, Bennett likes to have the ball in his hands and at Fairfield, they found every way possible to get it to him. He frequently drew double and triple teams as a wide receiver so Handley and his staff lined him up all over the field to try to get him the ball. As a junior, he caught 45 passes for 821 yards and nine touchdowns. Handley didn’t know his senior year stats off the top of his head, but said the production level was similar and he scored a total of 12 touchdowns rushing and receiving.

“He understood leverage,” Handley said. “Once he got coached up on what DBs were trying to do to him, it didn’t matter if you double-covered him. Just throw him the ball. He’s going to make a play. He would come to us like, ‘Coach, I know they’ve been doubling me, just get me the ball.’ And he would make the play. That’s the kind of guy you want. When the ball is in the air, it doesn’t matter if he’s doubled, sometimes even tripled. He’s going to make the play.”

And what Bennett loved about Indiana, Handley said, is the Hoosiers allow their wide receivers to go make plays.

Bennett was committed to Alabama-Birmingham, but de-committed in November and Indiana wide receivers coach Grant Heard got back in touch. The Hoosiers were, of course, in the middle of a 6-2 season in which they finished fifth in the Big Ten in passing yards, put Ty Fryfogle on the All-Big Ten team and had two of the top 10 pass catchers in the conference with him and Whop Philyor.

“I really like that they throw it around,” Bennett said. “And they don’t always run it or always pass it, they mix it up a lot.”

The system was enough to get Bennett out of the southeast. He was also intrigued by the career possibilities Indiana could help him for after college. He’s hoping to be a sports broadcaster and IU has a strong media program.

“I think Malachi really loved UAB,” Handley said. “The idea of being a hometown hero, staying at home. But at Indiana, I think it came down to what fit him best offensively. When you look at how Indiana threw the ball around to multiple receivers, having 100-yard, 200-yard games at times, if you’re a lone ranger receiver and like to compete and go get it, you’ll love that style of play.”

Bennett, the nephew of former NFL wide receiver Earl Bennett, is the third-highest rated player in Indiana’s 14-member freshman class of 2021 behind Lawrence North quarterback Donaven McCulley and wide receiver Jaquez Smith from Westlake High School in Atlanta. Handley predicts that he’s one IU fans will adore.

“He’s got a million-dollar smile,” Handley said. “He has a smile that will truly captivate Hoosierland. It is going to infect Indiana. He’s shy. He’s quiet, he’s kind of a goofball once you get to know him. He treats everybody the same. He doesn’t shun people. He wants it to be a family environment, he loves everybody. He’s a kid that really is loving. You won’t find one better.”

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