Travis Benjamin’s offseason a big reason why he’s thrived in preseason

If he gets a few moments before Thursday’s kickoff, Travis Benjaminicon-article-link might drop by to the other side of field to pay Chicago punter Pat O’Donnell a visit.

O’Donnell is among those Benjamin can thank for the way he blazed through August as a standout at wide receiver and on punt returns.

Still recovering from the serious knee injury he suffered to end 2013, Benjamin wasn’t able to field punts during his downtime before the 2014 season. Fully healed and ready to prove himself on a roster that added plenty of new options at wide receiver and punt returner, Benjamin worked with O’Donnell, a fellow University of Miami grad, throughout the months leading into training camp.

As Saturday’s 53-yard punt return for a touchdown showed, whatever Benjamin did to prepare for 2015 was exactly what the Browns wanted.

“That’s much like the Travis of old,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “We talked about the knee and how it is going to take that extra time to get back but I think we are seeing the results with it being two years out.”

The results have gone beyond punt returner, a position he fended off the likes of Taylor Gabrielicon-article-link and Shane Wynn to win the job. Benjamin is also the Browns leading receiver in the preseason with seven catches for 55 yards and a touchdown, a direct reflection of what he’s shown not only on the practice field since Day 1 of training camp but also the fields in Coral Gables, Florida.

“My plan was to come back to camp full ready to go and put my best foot forward on the field and come out and have the best possible outcome I could,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin didn’t miss a game last season, but both he and Pettine are quick to admit he wasn’t the same. The fourth-year wide receiver said he was so focused on staying healthy that it led to indecisiveness, especially on punt returns. Benjamin lost his job for a stretch and finished the season with an average of 8.5 yards per return, down from the 11.7 he had in 2013 before the injury.

A peculiar play served as the one when Benjamin knew he was back to 100 percent.

Benjamin was unable to field and return a punt in Cleveland’s preseason opener, so he was hungry to test out the knee -- no matter what. Standing inside the 20-yard line during the first quarter, Benjamin drifted back, and back, and back before he fielded the punt at the 2-yard line -- a no-no in most situations. He made a move, darted to the sidelines and gained 17 yards.

“I actually told (special teams coordinator Chris Tabor) I got to get one,” Benjamin said. “I wouldn't go into the third preseason game knowing I hadn't gotten a return yet. I just wanted to put something on tape. I came to the sidelines and I explained it to Tabes and we were on the same page.”

Benjamin’s rapport with quarterback Josh McCownicon-article-link has been strong since the start of training camp, as the two have connected on a number of passes at practice to go along with the in-game production. He came to training camp better prepared, too, as he added five pounds of muscle, absorbed himself in offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s playbook and focused on attacking the ball rather than letting it come to him.

On top of his 55 receiving yards, Benjamin helped the Browns move 35 more in the preseason opener when he induced a pass interference call on a deep ball from McCown. It’s one of the many plays that have contributed to Benjamin’s growing confidence.

“From receiver, from a special teams standpoint, whenever they want No. 11 on the field, I'll put my best foot forward,” Benjamin said. “As long as I keep that edge of getting open and running my routes and getting the right depth and putting speed on film, it will be a great season for me.”

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