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Driven To Be The Best

Former Montclair Prep Star Kevin Bentley Steers Northwestern Defense With Aggressive Approach

August 02, 2000|PAIGE A. LEECH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kevin Bentley was once the easiest player to recognize on a basketball court.

The former two-sport standout at Montclair Prep had blond-dyed hair with purple streaks and wore different-colored, knee-high socks..

As Bentley prepares for his third football season at Northwestern, the props and gimmicks are gone.

But Bentley is still getting plenty of attention. After leading the Big Ten Conference with 148 tackles in 1999, that's to be expected.

"He was very productive for us last year," said Coach Randy Walker, whose staff voted Bentley the Wildcats' most valuable player.

Walker, who took over the Northwestern program after the 1998 season, noticed Bentley almost immediately.

"From the first day I was here, he's been a very hard-working, very aggressive, assertive kid," he said.

After one season as a starter, Bentley, 20, has established himself among the nation's best linebackers. He was chosen a preseason All-American and Butkus Award candidate by Street & Smith's magazine.

Most preseason publications rank the 6-foot-1, 233-pound junior among the top three linebackers in the Big Ten Conference. Bentley's goal is more far-reaching.

"I want to at least get a chance at the Butkus Award," he said, referring to the award honoring the nation's top linebacker.

Goals and expectations, fueled by unfettered confidence, are an integral part of Bentley's life. Coaches quickly recognized Bentley was special because of his calculating manner and attention to detail.

Defensive coordinator Jerry Brown, who recruited Bentley because of his "tenacity on both sides of the football" in high school, said Bentley is unlike any incoming freshman he can recall.

Upon arriving at Northwestern in 1998, Bentley told Brown he first wanted to tackle a few tasks.

"He wanted to get acclimated to the time difference, get used to the people around here and get used to an eating routine," Brown said. "And he still lives like that. Everything that he does is pretty well thought out."

So when Bentley talks, his coaches listen.

"The thing that makes Kevin special is he has a real clear picture of where he wants to go," Walker said. "It isn't enough for him to be a good college football player. . . . He wants to be the best player that's ever played."

Bentley, an outside linebacker in an attacking 4-3 scheme, played mostly on special teams as a freshman. He was second string behind Barry Gardner, now a starting linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles.

"When [Gardner] left, everyone was saying I had to fill his shoes," Bentley said.

And that's what he did.

With Northwestern ranking 92nd in the nation against the run last season, Bentley was left to make tackles. By the dozens.

He had 25, including 21 solo tackles, against Indiana.

"This defense requires fast guys who can run, and we free them up to let them run downhill and make tackles," Walker said. "And [Bentley] is perfect for the job."

With a nose for the football, Bentley proved more than a reliable tackler last season. He intercepted two passes--returning one 40 yards for a touchdown--forced a fumble by Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne of Wisconsin, recovered two fumbles, had three pass breakups, two sacks and 10 tackles for a loss.

"It was all fun," Bentley said. "I just went out there and played."

If Bentley has another productive season, an early jump to the NFL could become an option.

"Like I tell everyone else, I would love to play in the NFL," he said. "That's all I've been working for.

"Maybe I'll sit down with my coaches and see where I'm at. If I feel I'm ready, I'll do it."

Walker said Bentley is exactly the kind of player NFL scouts are looking for.

"He has the tools and the ability," Walker said. "It's one thing to be big, fast and strong. . . . But you have to have a certain savvy for the game. And [Bentley] has that. He can find the football and go make plays."

Bentley is hoping to make fewer plays this season for the Wildcats, who finished 3-8 and lost seven of their last eight games last year. The defense logged long hours while the offense sputtered.

This season, he'd like to be on the field less and in the opponent's backfield more.

Having gained strength and speed in the off-season, Bentley can hardly wait to gain more attention.

"I'm on top of the world right now," he said.

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