Benedict has grown up on the road to the Senior Bowl

MOBILE, Ala. -- Heath Benedict, the only Division II player at the Senior Bowl, was pretty hard to find this season.

Which is odd, when you consider the offensive tackle's hulking 6-foot-5, 321-pound frame.

"It's up to me to prove that I belong, and I believe that I do," said Benedict, who played this season closer to 345 pounds but had dropped more than 20 pounds when he went through the Senior Bowl weigh-in on Monday.

"There's no hiding here. Everybody you go against is a great player. It's all out there for everybody to see, the good and the bad, and it doesn't matter where you're from or where you played in college."

For the record, Benedict played at tiny Newberry College, a school of 920 students about 40 miles northwest of Columbia, S.C.

"I was as happy for Newberry as I was for myself when I got the Senior Bowl invite," said Benedict, who's been proudly sporting his red Newberry practice shirt this week around the team hotel. "It's a great place, and it's been great for me."

The fact that Benedict is even here is pretty remarkable when you consider that he's only the sixth Division II player to play in the game since 2000 and the first once since cornerback Ricardo Colclough of Tusculum in 2004.

But Benedict also had an injury-plagued senior season working against him. He tore ligaments in his ankle after spring practice and underwent surgery. He tried to come back and play too soon and wound up fracturing the outside part of his foot. He played for two games with the fracture but missed the final three games.

"I was trying to compensate for my ankle and putting too much pressure on the outside of my foot," Benedict explained. "I tried to play through it, but pain-wise, I couldn't do it anymore and had to miss those last three games."

Even though he earned first team Little All-America honors as a junior and had already made quite a name for himself in the Division II ranks, Benedict knew he would be hard-pressed to get a Senior Bowl invite if he missed a large chunk of his senior season.

That uncertainty prompted him to gamble and come back too early.

"To be completely honest, I was hurt the whole year," he said. "But I knew I had to prove myself, and to do that, I had to be invited to the Senior Bowl so I could compete against the best. You hear the knock about the competition in Division II, and that's not completely fair. There are a lot of really good players in Division II that aren't that far off. There's just not as many of them."

Benedict learned late in the season that he'd made the Senior Bowl cut. He couldn't wait, though, and wanted to see tangible proof. So after talking to Senior Bowl president Steve Hale on the phone and being assured the official invitation was coming in the mail to Newberry coach Zac Willis, Benedict took matters into his own hands.

"I actually beat my coach over to his mailbox and took it out of his mailbox," Benedict said. "I was the first one to know and went over to his office and told him. We were all thrilled. My coaches were going nuts.

"For little Newberry College, that was awesome."

How Benedict ended up at Newberry is a story in its own right. He was both a Parade and USA Today All-American defensive tackle at The Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., after growing up in Greer, S.C., and he started his college career at Tennessee.

Admittedly, Benedict did more partying than studying at Tennessee and fell way behind academically. He redshirted in 2002 and left the team just prior to the start of the 2003 season after repeatedly landing in Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer's doghouse.

He never played in a game for the Volunteers.

"That year I sat out in 2003 was good for me," Benedict said. "I needed to mature, and I also became a workout warrior during that time."

A baseball pitcher in high school, Benedict weighed 285 pounds when he got to Tennessee and couldn't do one repetition of 225 pounds on the bench-press. Now, he's maxing out at 450 pounds and has been in the high 20s when doing reps at 225. He hopes to get in the low 30s at the NFL combine next month in Indianapolis.

He's also optimistic that he will be able to run a sub-5.0 40-yard dash.

"I think I'm going to be able to turn some heads when it comes to Indy," Benedict said. "From what I've heard, a lot of people know that I'm going to test well. Competition has been the biggest question, and I understand that, so this is probably the biggest week for me."

Mike Barry, the Detroit Lions' assistant offensive line coach, was at Tennessee when the Vols recruited Benedict. Barry remembers Benedict as a painfully immature kid who had some athletic ability and is now significantly bigger and stronger than he was when he first arrived in college.

The thing that has jumped out most to Barry this week, though, is Benedict's lack of technique.

"But he has all the measurables, and if you get him with NFL coaching, he'll have a chance," Barry said.

Benedict's goal is to go on the first day of the draft, which might not be out of the question if you look at the five previous Division II players to play in the Senior Bowl. All five went in the top four rounds, and three of the five went in the top three rounds.

Colclough, who was on the Cleveland Browns' roster this season, was the defensive MVP for the North team in the 2004 game.

"I guess I took the long route to get here, but I'm here," Benedict said. "I never envisioned that I'd be in this position when I left Tennessee. But my coach [Willis] always told me that if I came there [to Newberry] and did what I was supposed to do, that I'd have a shot -- and he was right."

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at espnclow@aol.com.