Photo by Gabriel Stovall
Alejandro Bennifield (right) enjoys a light moment with nose tackle Nathaniel Norwood. With 28 passing touchdowns this season, Bennifield set a Lovejoy record for passing touchdowns with 43.
HAMPTON — During last season’s march toward the Class AAAA championship game, Lovejoy was breaking in a new quarterback.
Alejandro Bennifield, the freshly transferred junior from then-region rival Jonesboro, arrived on the scene with good measureables even if he was a little green.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound lefty looked the part of a star high school quarterback. He threw a good ball — nice, tight spiral. He was clocked at about 4.8 seconds in the 40-yard dash. That was enough for Yahoo! Sports to consider him a dual-threat quarterback in their scouting reports.
Yet with all of this going for him, Lovejoy coach Al Hughes boiled down Bennifield’s to one primary assignment.
“In his first year, he was mainly in charge of handing the ball to Travis (Custis),” Hughes said.
What a difference a year makes.
Bennifield — 3,885 career passing yards and 43 career touchdown passes later — has become one of the most decorated Wildcat quarterbacks in school history.
With his 212 yards and two scoring tosses in Lovejoy’s 63-42 semifinal win over North Cobb last Friday, the Tennessee-Chattanooga commitment became the all-time Lovejoy leader in passing touchdowns — a distinction formerly held by Kisan Flakes, who graduated in 2004.
Heading into Saturday’s Class AAAAAA championship game against Norcross (14-0), Bennifield’s stats are impressive. He has completed 143 of 234 passes — a 61 percent completion rate — for 2,395 yards and 28 touchdowns to just five interceptions.
What’s more is he’s done it without cutting into Custis’ production. In fact, Custis has more yards (2,058) and more touchdowns (35) than last season.
But the statistics and measureables alone aren’t what impresses Hughes. It’s his leadership ability, Hughes says, that has transformed Bennifield’s game.
“Our offense is not an easy offense,” Hughes said. “We’re pretty complex. We do route reads, we trot out multiple receivers. We try to mix it up with different passing routes. Alejandro’s done a great job of adjusting to all those things.”
Hughes attributes a year of experience in Lovejoy’s no-huddle spread attack to his vast improvement.
And here are some more stats to back it up: From 2011 to 2012 Bennifield has thrown for 905 more yards, 13 more touchdowns and three less interceptions. He’s also raised his completion percentage up eight points.
Hughes said most quarterbacks have to spend time playing freshman and junior varsity football to get a good grasp for Hughes’ system.
Not so with Bennifield.
“We just realized the other day that he’s broken all our school passing records,” Hughes said. “Good feat for a young man who’s only been here two years.”
And he’s done it against stiffer competition in Georgia’s highest class.
As a result, the Lovejoy offense has been especially prolific this year. So much has been made — and rightly so — of Lovejoy sporting one of the state’s most ferocious defenses. But Bennifield has quietly paced the Wildcats toward being one of Georgia’s highest scoring offenses.
The Wildcats come into Saturday’s title tussle with Norcross averaging 43.6 points a game.
And according to Bennifield, it’s not just all about physical attributes and skill. Bennifield said that even before the season began, he felt more comfortable in Lovejoy’s scheme than in any other he’s ever operated in.
“I know the offense inside and out,” Bennifield said. “I’m able to call plays and can tell the coaches what I think will work.”
And with Lovejoy having a chance to win its first state football title in school history and become the first Clayton County team to do it since Morrow’s 1987 squad, Hughes has no problem with his signal-caller being asserting his leadership.
“His confidence level, his demeanor, his approach,” Hughes said. “The communication of the offense and his field presence. It’s all apart of beginning to see him grow and mature. It got to the point during the offseason where he was telling everybody what to do and where to go. I figured at that point we might as well unlock the playbook and let him have at it.
“He’s a very intelligent young man and has definitely been our field general.”