Bennett back where it began|PREP FOOTBALL

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 25, 2008

When Vicksburg High football coach Alonzo Stevens found himself in a pickle, he turned to one of his own.

Weeks before the start of training camp, offensive line coach Derrick Mason left the Gators’ program for health reasons and Stevens started scrambling for a replacement on short notice. He called André Bennett, one of Vicksburg’s best lineman in the past 15 years, to gauge his interest.

Bennett, a 2002 VHS graduate who went on to play at Grambling, was nearing completion of a season with Mahoning Valley of arenafootball2 when he got the call.

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“André epitomizes what Vicksburg football is all about,” Stevens said. “We had great success with André and he went on to Grambling to achieve great success. To have him able to come back and work with us, that’s what it’s all about.”

Bennett played his last game in Youngstown on a Saturday and arrived at VHS camp on Monday. Learning the ropes of coaching has been educational.

“I’m taking it all in, a learning experience,” Bennett said. “It’s a big transition from being a player. As a player, you come in and practice, then leave. Coaching is a 24-hour thing. It’s much more demanding than I thought. I came in thinking I was going to leave with the players, but as a coach you have to work on a game plan, watch film and correct things that need to be fixed.

“I’ve been enjoying it, though.”

Bennett graduated from Grambling in 2007. He participated in the NFL Combine, but did not get a call on draft day. In March of this year, he signed with Mahoning Valley. It took the hulking 6-foot, 4-inch 340-pounder longer to solve the Youngstown, Ohio, weather than arena ball.

“One of the first days I was there, I went outside to go to the store and there was snow all over the place,” Bennett said. “I’m not used to snow and I took a step and went straight down. The snow was up to my knees.”

His return to Vicksburg and the signature summer Southern swelter went off without a hitch and he is settling is as the Gators’ varsity offensive line coach and 9th-grade assistant coach.

He said he will continue to work at getting to the NFL, but will be playing somewhere next season. A coaching career after his playing days are over is also a viable possibility, he said.

“I hope so,” Stevens said. “He’s a jewel and he knows his craft.”

Bennett will lead the Gators offensive line Friday night against Pearl at Vicksburg Memorial Stadium. The Pirates (2-2) are coming off a thrashing of Lanier last week, while the Gators are coming off a 31-6 victory of Callaway in the Region 3-4A opener for both teams.

Pearl has beaten Class 5A Northwest Rankin, but also lost to Brandon in the season-opener and then to Jackson Prep of the Mississippi Private Schools Association two weeks ago. Stevens said the Pirates are dangerous.

“They are a talented team,” said Stevens, whose team struggled with Pearl last year before pulling away late. “We have to be able to handle what we do and execute our plays. I’m more concerned with us and how we play.”

Vicksburg is riding a three-game winning streak after losing to South Panola in the Red Carpet Classic the first week of the season. Since that loss, Vicksburg has beaten Warren Central, Hazlehurst and Callaway.