Zumbrota-Mazeppa head coach Darin Raasch has plenty of great things to say about senior running back/linebacker Jacob Bennett, but he admits that one college coach summed him up very succinctly.
“This coach said, ‘Geez, he’s a check-every-box guy.’” Raasch said. “And that’s true. Character, athletics, academics. If you want it in your program, Jacob’s that guy.”
Bennett has put up some great numbers for the Z-M football squad — including 22 career touchdowns, 159 tackles, three fumble recoveries, seven sacks and four interceptions — but he might be best known as one of the best wrestlers on a perennial power. Last March, the Cougars won their second consecutive Class A state title, with Bennett claiming his second consecutive second-place finish in the individual competition.
That success on the mat has attracted attention from college wrestling coaches, but Bennett has other ideas about his future.
“I just made the decision that I want to play college football,” Bennett said on the first official day of football practice with the Cougars. “I’ve been recruited for both, but I now know that I want to play football.”
And just recently, Bennett made his college decision. He verbally committed to play football next fall at Division II Minnesota State, Mankato. The Mavericks are a perennial power at the D-II level.
So what will MSU coach Todd Hoffner be getting in Bennett?
“Jacob is more than capable of going the distance every time he touches the ball,” Raasch said. “Offensively, we want teams to have to account for him on a play-to-play basis. Jacob has led our team in carries every game since the middle of his sophomore year.”
And, while Bennett is likely to see a lot of reps as the middle linebacker on defense, Raasch said he will move around a lot.
“He’s one of those players who could play a lot of different positions,” he said. “Jacob has played safety and linebacker on defense, and we like to keep him in the middle, where he can be in on the most action.”
No matter where Bennett plays, he’s likely to be a focus of opponents’ attention, especially given that Z-M graduated a lot of its top players from last year’s squad.
“We lost our top two quarterbacks and three of our four receivers from last year, so coming out of the chute, people are going to be keying on Jacob Bennett,” Raasch said. “Still, we will try to be fairly diversified. We don’t want to be a one-trick pony. We’ve got guys on the edge who can catch the ball. We’ll have guys around him who can make plays.”
Bennett isn’t the type to demand the ball, but he doesn’t mind being the center of an opponent’s attention.
“I like running with the ball, scoring the ball,” he said. “I like having the target on my back, because I think it brings out the best in me. But really, anything I can do to help the team is fine. Blocking, or selling a good fake to get a tackler to go the wrong way. I trust the coaches to make the right play calls, and every one of 11 guys has to be on the same page for a play to work.”
Learning from defeat
Last year, Bennett and his teammates were frustrated when they walked off the field after losing to Lourdes in the Section One, Class AAA semifinals. For the second time that season, the Cougars had fallen to the Eagles after leading at halftime.
Bennett wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year.
“We left with a bad taste in our mouths,” he said.
“We have to learn how to finish games, not take for granted that a lead at halftime will become a victory. We have to be relentless the whole game, so we’re trying to instill a new culture here. The first day of practice you could see that the intensity was up, and hopefully it stays up the whole season.”
It won’t be easy. While the Cougars won’t play Lourdes in the regular season, their schedule is brutal, with a season-opener against Kasson-Mantorville, which fell one game short of state last year in Section 1AAAA. Two weeks later, the Cougars face Caledonia, which has won 41 consecutive games and three straight state titles.
Raasch said Lourdes did a great job of making adjustments at halftime against the Cougars last year, but his team has moved on.
“We’ve washed our hands of the Lourdes game and are on to Kasson-Mantorville,” he said. “We know K-M is going to be fundamentally sound and well-coached, and they have a ton of athletes over there, so that’s obviously a challenging test for us right out of the chute. But if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”
Speaking of the best, Raasch doesn’t hesitate to put his starting running back in that category.
“Jacob is a tremendous person, nevermind his athletic accomplishments,” he said. “We have a senior class full of great people, and Jacob is probably at the forefront of those. We’ll have great senior leadership on this team, and Jacob’s character, his work ethic, is second to none among all the kids I’ve coached.”
And, while Bennett may have stepped away from the possibility of wrestling in college, he says that his future achievements in athletics and in life will be built on the foundation he built on the wrestling mat.
“There’s a saying that ‘Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy,’” he said. “Wrestling teaches you to get the best out of yourself, and it helps you in terms of endurance and competitiveness. It just seems like wrestlers are a different breed.”
In Bennett’s case, it’s a rare breed.