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Versatile Edwards a big part of Richmond's plans

Following Ben Edwards' statistical breakout and in anticipation of the coming season, Richmond's football staff focused on the number the do-everything receiver sees when he steps on a scale.

The Spiders asked Edwards to bulk up a bit in advance of an expanded workload. The senior from York High figures to get more touches than last season, when he caught, rushed and returned kicks a total of 1,100 yards and averaged nearly 10 touches per game on the way to first-team all-conference.

"It's similar to when I came out of high school," Edwards said last week at the Colonial Athletic Association's preseason media day in Baltimore. "I was just an 'athlete.' I try to help the team as much as possible in any way they need me. That's what I try to base my game off of, being able to do multiple things in our offense."

The 5-foot-11 Edwards gained eight pounds since last year and heads into preseason camp at 198 pounds. It may not sound like much, but because he will post more than the 16 rushes he logged last season, the extra weight will make him more durable.

He led the CAA in receptions per game last season (7.27) and was second in overall catches (80) to New Hampshire's R.J. Harris (84), who played one more game.

Spiders' coach Danny Rocco recited the list of ways they intend to use Edwards; slot, or inside, receiver; running 'jet' sweeps; passing out of 'jet' sweeps; catching screen passes; catching the ball on quick timing and targeted routes; running deeper routes between the hashmarks; returning punts; returning kickoffs.

"We'll be selective from week to week as to the volume that he gets," Rocco said. "The thing that I think that goes unnoticed sometimes is, it's not just the game; sometimes, it's practice, too. You can't overwork the kid in practice. In the game, you do what you have to do to try to win the game, but you have to have that balance. You've got to practice the things you want to do in a game so they can be efficient and successful."

Besides extra touches, Rocco said that the most noticeable difference from last season will be that Edwards will line up in the backfield more often. That and improved depth at the position give the Spiders the flexibility to run four-receiver sets, which they never did last season.

UR has fast, rangy receivers in Stephen Barnette and Surry's Reggie Diggs, productive Rashad Ponder, the No. 3 pass catcher from a year ago, and graduate student transfer Shane Savage, a third-team All-American two years ago at Cornell.

"You try and shut one of us down, and the others will get off," Edwards said. "Pick your poison. I think that's what our offense thrives on, just being able to put the ball in people's hands and let them make plays."

To hear Rocco tell it, Edwards is at least as valuable off the field as on.

"What I say about Ben and what I've come to realize is, he's too good to be true," Rocco said. "What I mean by that is, his performance is his performance. You can look at the stat sheet and you can watch him play. But what he does in the locker room, in the weight room, on campus with the team, it's almost too good to be true. You have coaches that you hope can offer that type of leadership."

Rocco flipped the script in his first year at UR. The Spiders went from winless in the CAA in 2011 to 8-3 overall and were one of four teams to tie for the official conference title at 6-2 — "official" because Old Dominion finished 7-1, but was ineligible for the championship and automatic playoff berth as a departing member.

"When you have young people in your program who are totally committed to what you're doing, you know that your message is permeating through the locker room," Rocco said. "To know that guys like Ben are able to take the message, the vision of the program through the coaches and walk it down through the ranks is of extreme value.

"We all see talented players all the time, but they don't always offer this component. And then you have kids that offer this other component, but they're not very talented. So here's a kid who excels at the highest level on all those fronts."

Edwards has made himself into a valuable player. He showed glimpses two years ago, as the Spiders' second receiving option behind standout Tre Gray. He caught eight passes, including a touchdown grab, against Maine. He had nine receptions and completed a fourth-down pass on a trick play versus Delaware.

Last year, against ODU, he caught 11 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown. He had four games with double-figure receptions, including a career-high 13 catches in the season-ending win at William and Mary.

"I always told my dad that if I could improve as much as I did in high school at the college level, that I would be successful," Edwards said. "Year in and year out, it's about the work ethic. It's about being able to take it to the next level. That's what I did in high school and that's what I've been able to do, I've been successful at the college level. I just feel blessed and it's been an honor to play at the University of Richmond."

Edwards has statistical goals, but only to a point. He knows that duplicating 80 catches will be difficult, given the target on his back and the Spiders' other receiving options, plus he knows that he will get more rushing opportunities. Might Rocco and the staff elect to rest him a bit more, given his increased workload?

"I personally want to improve in every aspect and every statistical way that I possibly can," he said, "whether it's punt returns or special teams, whether it's rushing the ball, whether it's getting more catches, yards, touchdowns. All those things are very important to me.

"But at the same time, I also think it's more important that I'm just doing my job for the team, that I'm doing my part. As long as I'm helping the team and the team's winning, I think the stats won't matter. To be honest, they don't matter, as long as the team's winning."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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