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YSU’s Benton finding his way

Transfer LB getting settled with new team and former Western Illinois position coach

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes YSU linebacker Greg Benton (5) watches a drill during a practice at Stambaugh Stadium last week. The Western Illinois transfer has worked to fit into the rest of the linebacker corp.

YOUNGSTOWN — When Youngstown State linebackers coach John Haneline arrived to YSU during the spring, the Penguins’ linebacker room had seven players and was in need of some depth.

Enter Haneline’s former player at Western Illinois, Greg Benton Jr.

Benton entered the transfer portal as a graduate transfer in March and received plenty of interest. In addition to YSU, Benton announced offers via his Twitter from Ball State, Rhode Island, Missouri State, Hampton, Towson, Eastern Kentucky and Houston Baptist.

Ultimately, his relationship with Haneline helped draw him to YSU.

“The (transfer) process was definitely a difficult one, but I’m glad I made the choice to come to Youngstown, and I’m happy to be here,” Benton said. “(Haneline) came here … and I really enjoyed my time at Western and everything and I’m grateful for the seasons I had over there, but I felt comfortable with Coach Haneline, and felt I can succeed here the best.”

On Haneline’s end, the prior relationship helped a lot, too.

“When I decided to go into the portal, I didn’t want to go searching for a guy that I didn’t know and that our coaching staff (didn’t know),” Haneline said. “I had known Greg. I knew the athleticism and the talent that he has and what type of kid he is, and I knew in the (linebacker) room, with the culture that (head) coach (Doug) Phillips has built, I wanted to bring in the right guy. I knew he would be just from my relationship.”

In Benton, the Penguins nabbed a linebacker that racked up 99 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks during his 16 games with the Leathernecks. He also forced a fumble and recovered one. He had 54 tackles — third-best on WIU’s defense — during the 2021 campaign, and earned All-Missouri Valley Football Conference Honorable Mention. His 7.5 tackles per game during the 2021 season were the ninth-highest average in the MVFC.

“The kid plays with everything he has every single snap,” Haneline said. “He’s going to give you everything he’s got; he’s that type of guy. The old saying (is) ‘run through a brick wall,’ he’ll try and do it. He brings that to us, and athleticism and ability to run, he has that in him. And the growth that we can take with his eyes and his fundamentals being here and having more time with him now, that’s what I’m most excited about for him.”

Benton joins a linebacking room with plenty of youngsters, but also one with talent. Alex Howard played in 10 games as a freshman last season, and Griffin Hoak returns for his junior season after starting in all 10 of YSU’s games last year.

In addition, the Penguins brought in Division II transfer Keon Freeman from the University of Charleston (W.Va.). Freeman led UC in tackles.

So far, Benton says he feels comfortable with his new unit.

“I’m learning the playbook pretty well, making strides and everything,” Benton said. “I think the biggest thing about this team is the brotherhood here. … It’s been great. The guys have been welcoming and accepting and everything, so it’s been a great time.”

How tight-knit the unit has become is also something Haneline highlights.

“I think the strength of this unit is the brotherhood we’ve created in our room first and foremost,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing is we’re tight-knit and we care. When one of us makes a play, we all make a play, and we get excited for each other.”

He also likes the tangibles and intangibles that the room features.

“We have a great combination of football smarts and athleticism,” he said. “(We have) length from the young guys to the guys coming back and that we’ve brought in. We’ve grown in size, and the biggest thing that I think is a tribute to our strength coach in the offseason having these guys — he did an unbelievable job with them — they’re just moving different from the spring. I feel like we have a new group already.”

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