BEREA — Travis Benjamin made the play of the game in the preseason opener vs. the St. Louis Rams. He sprinted across the field, turned the corner and was gone — untouched — on a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown.
On Thursday against the Lions, he had an 82-yard return for a touchdown called back by a holding penalty.
Benjamin’s bursts reminded everyone — even Joshua Cribbs’ biggest fans — of the impact he can have in the return game.
His work at receiver throughout the offseason and in training camp has alerted anyone who’s paid attention that he’s not a one-trick pony.
“He’s a guy who busts his (butt) and works hard and he wants to be more than a punt returner — and he is,” receivers coach Scott Turner said. “He’s a receiver and he’s a guy who’s going to contribute and play a large role in our offense.”
That’s music to Benjamin’s ears.
“I feel like with my speed and my talent, either in special teams or whenever I get on the field, I can make a difference,” he said.
Benjamin (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) is a leading candidate for most-improved player from 2012. He’s among the leaders in practice catches and hasn’t dropped many. A practice doesn’t go by without Benjamin doing something worthy of a tweet or jot in the notebook.
“He has gotten a lot better,” said coach Rob Chudzinski, who went to the University of Miami two decades before Benjamin. “He’s using his speed better in his routes. As opposed to last year, where he was just a guy that ran deep, this year up to this point he has shown ability to run the shorter routes as well and get in and out of breaks really well.”
With 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Benjamin will always have the ability to sprint by the cornerback and safety. His two receiving touchdowns as a rookie last year — he added a 93-yard punt return for a score — came on 22- and 69-yard catches from Brandon Weeden. He averaged 16.6 yards on 18 catches in 14 games, including three starts.
The growth in Benjamin’s game this season is most evident in the intermediate routes. The 15-yard out from Weeden has become almost unstoppable, and the 12-yard in has also been effective.
“There’s plenty of targets out there but him knowing my speed and my ability to get open quicker and faster, I think that’s why he comes to me,” Benjamin said.
He is always a threat to blow by the cornerback, which opens up the playbook. His improved route running makes the shorter patterns so productive.
“The deep, moderate type of routes are good,” Turner said. “But a guy like him, he can run them all, he can get in and out of things pretty well, so he’s encouraging.
“I was excited about him when I saw from him on film because of his ability to run. I felt like with some maturity there was some more there.”
Benjamin credits his offseason workouts in Boca Raton, Fla., with Anquan Boldin and other NFL receivers for helping his routes. Boldin, 32, has never been a blazer but has made a Pro Bowl career with the ability to get open.
His best advice?
“Stay focused. Be crafty with your technique,” Benjamin said. “Be crafty in your routes because only you know where you’re going on the field in the route running.”
Closer to home, he has advisers in Greg Little and veteran slot receiver Davone Bess.
“It’s just more crisp,” Little said of Benjamin’s route running this year. “Travis is so fast and sometimes when he cuts it’s rounded.
“Travis’ top speed is obviously here (putting his hand above his head), so you don’t have to go top speed. Go one or two notches under that and still you’re playing at a high level, and guys know you’re fast and obviously are going to be aware of that when you’re coming off the ball.”
Benjamin will need to come out of the gate quickly. Starter Josh Gordon is suspended for the first two games, so Benjamin will likely slide into his spot. When everyone’s available, Benjamin is the fourth receiver behind Gordon, Little and Bess.
“I’m going to go into Game 1 vs. the Dolphins looking to come out with a great game, just to fill in for Josh,” Benjamin said. “And through Game 2 and Game 3 just play the best I can.”
“We will use him as a receiver, whether Josh is there or not,” Chudzinski said. “He’s definitely somebody we want to take advantage of and find a role for. He will be more important in those first couple games.”
Through limited time in two preseason games, Benjamin has two catches for 21 yards. The spectacular has shown up on his returns, even eliciting a congratulatory text from Cribbs, Cleveland’s kick returner from 2005-12.
“Josh is a great person to me,” Benjamin said. “He was a great mentor while he was here in Cleveland. By watching him and learning the things he did, it’s coming along into my game. He always gave me great advice.”
Cribbs has 40 pounds of muscle on Benjamin and uses his strength to break tackles and into the clear. Benjamin uses his speed to run to daylight.
He’s not flashy and speaks softly, but his ego is obvious when discussing his speed. He ranks himself the fastest guy on the team and among the top five in the league, joining Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson and Titans running back Chris Johnson.
When he’s running free, nobody can catch him.
“I think if I get the edge on you, it’s me all the way,” Benjamin said.