During this past offseason, it was easy for Center Grove football fans to focus more on the defensive talent walking out the door than the players coming back.
That was all the motivation Bailey Bennett needed.
Bennett, the Trojans’ 6-foot, 210-pound senior outside linebacker responsible for 65 tackles in the program’s Class 6A state championship march of a year ago, took it upon himself to make this season’s defense every bit as special as the 2015 edition.
So far, so great.
Not only is Bennett averaging a team-best nine tackles through Center Grove’s first five games, he’s intercepted two passes, deflected two more and recovered a fumble.
Bennett wears No. 4 and at times it looks as though there are four Bailey Bennetts on the field.
“Bailey is kind of just doing his job. He’s more seasoned, so he’s making more big plays,” Trojans fourth-year defensive coordinator Chad Daniels said.
“Last year he would make big plays and then make a mistake, but he was on the learning curve. This season he’s limited the mistakes.”
Bennett has even made his presence felt in Center Grove’s Wing-T offense.
Utilized as a running back in the Trojans’ jumbo package in goal line situations, Bennett picked up 3-yard touchdown runs in recent victories against fellow MIC heavyweights Carmel and Ben Davis.
Bennett opened this season with 12 tackles against Warren Central, followed it up with 11 against Whiteland and nine more in the Copper Kettle conquest of Carmel. Bennett tacked on 11 more tackles in the 20-7 win at Ben Davis and provided his team another two in limited action in Friday’s lopsided defeat of North Central.
His interception of a pass attempt from Ben Davis junior quarterback Reese Taylor only 93 seconds into the game came after Trojans junior Tyler Watson deflected the throw.
Center Grove scored on the ensuing possession, helping set the tone for a 20-7 Trojans victory.
“Even without so many of the starters from last year we knew that if everybody gave everything they’ve got, and with coach Daniels’ schemes that we could be just as good, if not better,” Bennett said. “The coaches put me in the right position. I’m just doing my job.
“The game has sort of slowed down for me because I played so much as a junior.”
Last season, Bennett demonstrated a knack for stepping up in the biggest games.
He produced nine tackles in a Week 3 victory at Carmel, eight in the first-round sectional defeat of Columbus North and a then-career-high 10 at Warren Central in the Trojans’ 24-13 regional victory.
Bennett capped his junior season with eight tackles in Center Grove’s 28-16 victory over Penn in the 6A championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Being part of a program as successful as Center Grove’s didn’t come without growing pains for Bennett.
Perhaps because he recognized great potential, head coach Eric Moore wasn’t always easy on the young linebacker.
“He likes to get on me any chance he gets,” Bennett said with a laugh. “When I was a freshman and sophomore it kind of bothered me, but it made me so tough. I’m so glad he did it.”
The Trojans host Lawrence Central on Friday. And while Bennett might not be the fastest or strongest defensive player on the field, chances are good he’ll be nearest to whoever is carrying the football for the Bears more often than not.
“Bailey’s biggest asset is his savvy. The un-coachable almost,” Daniels said. “He has a general knack for avoiding blocks and a general knack for getting to the football.
“He’s a playmaker.”
Name: Bailey Bennett
Family: Parents, Paul and Jennifer; brother, Brock, 21
Favorite TV show: “Hard Knocks”
Favorite food: Tortellini
Favorite movie: “Friday Night Lights”
Favorite athlete: Rob Gronkowski
Favorite team: New England Patriots