AUGUSTA — John Bennett long envisioned playing a big role as a go-to wide receiver in an explosive Cony offense.

Big catches for big gains in big games.

The Cony senior dreamed of big moments through middle school and during his early high school football career.

There was just one potential roadblock …

“I couldn’t catch the ball,” he said. “I didn’t have the hands. I tried and I tried but I just couldn’t. This was a huge problem for me.”

Forget about those dreams of big plays; the 5-foot-7, 160-pound receiver stood little chance of seeing the field if he couldn’t corral the ball.

“He just didn’t have the hands,” senior quarterback Ben Lucas said. ‘You could see if he got that down, though, he could be an explosive player. It was just, when would he get it down?”

Bennett played sparingly his sophomore season for the Rams, seeing the bulk of his plays on special teams. By his junior year, Bennett earned a role as a starting defensive back and helped contribute on special teams as well.

“I finally was starting on defense,” said Bennett. “I was playing cornerback and some safety. But I still had terrible hands. I was watching guys like Tayler (Carrier) and he could catch balls like crazy. I remember thinking, ‘why can’t I do that?'”

Added Cony coach Robby Vachon: “He was still a key player for us. He was making plays on defense and on special teams but we knew he wanted to start on offense. However, you have to earn it. He came to us last year and said, ‘what do I need to do to get on the field? How can I get better?’ We told him, jokingly, that he needed to go out and catch a 1,000 balls a day. He took it literally.”

Bennett, with the help of younger brother and Cony sophomore Joel, did just that. He spent the offseason catching pass after pass after pass, determined to earn a starting spot on a receiving core that already featured Carrier and Jonathan Saban.

“I worked hard,” Bennett said. “It’s all I did. I literally went out and just caught thousands of balls. When we got to seven-on-sevens this summer, I knew I had to show something, and I did. It was huge. I just felt so much better, so much more confident. We had two spots open up at receiver and I wanted to earn one of them.”

Coaches and teammates noticed a big difference during summer workouts.

“He improved dramatically,” Vachon said. “He organized all these summer workouts with speed training and different workouts. He became a leader, a tremendous leader. He just led by example and he earned one of those spots.”

And he hasn’t relinquished it.

Coupled with Carrier and Saban, Bennett emerged as not only a shift slot receiver but a deep threat as well.

Bennett is third on the team with 30 receptions for 532 yards and six touchdowns. He also is third on the team with 59 tackles. Bennett has nine kickoff returns for 216 yards as well.

No. 2 Cony (7-2) is preparing to face top-seeded Brunswick (7-2) in the Pine Tree Conference championship game Friday night. The Dragons won the regular season meeting 54-38 in a wild shootout. Both teams expect offenses to reign again, making Bennett and fellow wide receivers key players tonight.

“John has become so reliable,” Lucas said. “It’s really cool for me because he is one of my best friends. To see him develop into this type of player, it’s awesome. He’s a guy you can throw a 5-yard hitch to and he’ll turn it into big gains. It’s pretty cool.”

Bennett joins Carrier as one of only two players who rarely, if ever, gets off the field. Bennett handles kick returns with Carrier and is also a gunner on kickoffs.

“I always knew he’d play on special teams and on defense, but I never thought he’d be this good overall,” Vachon said. “He’s just a great blocker and route runner. He’s the most versatile guy on the team. He’s a deep threat on offense now and we use him everywhere. He’s played nose guard, corner back, safety, running back, slot receiver, outside receiver. He never gets tired. Ever.

“He really is a self-made player. He literally had to out-work everybody to get on the field offensively, and he did. He’s the ultimate gamer.”

Bill Stewart — 621-5640[email protected]Twitter: @billstewartkj

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