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From the CAA to the NFL: New Bills cornerback Christian Benford is ready to make a big leap

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Buffalo Bills Rookie Mini Camp (copy)

Bills rookie Christian Benford isn't overly worried about the jump from the Colonial Athletic Association to the NFL.

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Christian Benford wasn’t ready to leave the field Friday.

After his first official practice as a professional at the Buffalo Bills’ rookie minicamp, Benford stuck around with first-round draft pick Kaiir Elam to run sprints after most of the other 40 players in attendance had headed inside to the locker room.

The moment provided a brief glimpse into why after picking Benford in the sixth round last month out of Villanova, the Bills highlighted the cornerback’s work ethic in his biography.

“I feel like I've got to outwork everybody, no matter what position I'm in, what age, no matter where they come from,” Benford said in an interview with The Buffalo News following practice. “It's always like I've got to outwork them, because at the end of the day, I want to be the best in the country, best in the world, you know what I'm saying? I have that willpower to be better. I'm still going to help everybody else, but I want to be the best.”

That mentality can be traced back to Benford’s high school days. He attended Randallstown High School in Baltimore County, Md.

“The very first time I saw him play, I said ‘he’s got it,’ ” said Shawn Waller, who served as Randallstown’s defensive coordinator in Benford’s junior year and took over as head coach for his senior season. “You could clearly see he was one of the best athletes in the county. He didn’t say much, just let his play speak for himself, and his play spoke loudly.”

Randallstown is one of the smaller public schools in the Baltimore area, and Waller said it’s typical for the best athletes in that area to be recruited to private schools, which are much larger.

“He was better than other guys who were receiving Division I offers,” Waller said. “We’re a small school, and he didn’t get the recognition he deserved. Some guys just don’t get their due as far as exposure. He was head and shoulders the best guy on the team, but never made anyone feel below him. It was always ‘we.’ ‘We can do this, we can do that.’ He always pulled the guys with him.”

Benford played wherever he was needed in high school, spending time on offense at wide receiver, running back and quarterback, and at cornerback and safety on defense. Although he was named to the All-Baltimore County team and received all-state accolades, he wasn’t heavily recruited, eventually accepting a full scholarship to Villanova, which competes in the Football Championship Subdivision.

Benford didn’t take long to make an impact, being named the Colonial Athletic Association’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018 after finishing with five interceptions in nine games played. During the 2020 season, which the Wildcats played in the spring of 2021 after the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the traditional fall start, Benford was named an All-CAA first-team choice after finishing with 18 tackles, one interception and four passes defensed in four games. He repeated as an All-CAA first-team choice in the fall of 2021 by finishing with seven interceptions and 18 passes defensed in 13 games played. The 18 passes defensed led all of NCAA FCS football, while the seven interceptions tied him for third.

“What you're getting is a player who is a highly motivated young man who will face any adversity thrown his way, who will outwork anybody,” Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante said. “A little reserved, not a big rah-rah guy, but leads by example, because everything he does, he does it the right way.”

In Villanova’s fourth game last season, the Wildcats traveled to Beaver Stadium to take on Penn State in front of a crowd of 105,790. On the Nittany Lions’ first play from scrimmage, wide receiver Jahan Dotson – a first-round pick last month by the Washington Commanders – beat Benford for a 52-yard touchdown.

“Then he was pretty much locked in after that,” Ferrante said of Benford. “Nothing is going to faze him. He's not going to get intimidated. Now he's got his foot in the door. He's in the same locker room as everyone else, and now he's just going to be himself and show everybody who he is and what he can do. No moment is going to be too big for him.”

In both high school and college, it became clear Benford had the talent to play at a higher level. He said he never considered transferring, though, believing in his coaches at both levels. He even used a favored phrase of Sean McDermott, saying he “trusted the process” at Villanova, which is why he’s not all that considered with the considerable jump of going from the CAA to the NFL.

“It's not something I worry about as much. Even in the offseason, I compete with the top-notch schools, the power five,” he said. “I believe sometimes, some kids in the FCS are as good or better than FBS players. It's not really a big change. It's nothing that's going to startle me or change my mindset. It's not really too different, just like the pace of practice, just the pace of ball is a little bit different, obviously.”

Benford is 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds. Although he does have some experience playing safety, Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said on the night he was drafted, Benford will start as a cornerback at the NFL level.

“At Villanova, he did play a little bit of both,” Beane said. “So, we'll see. It's easier to move him back. You see guys, Micah (Hyde) back in his day was a corner, also. So, we'll start him at corner. If we think he's a better fit, he's got good ball skills, then we move back to safety.”

Benford was the second cornerback taken in the Bills' draft, following Elam. They ended up on the same flight to Buffalo ahead of rookie minicamp.

“He's a good dude. He's a workaholic,” Benford said. “It's funny we had the same flight. I didn't really pay attention. I didn't see him. When we got off, he was like, 'Yo, we was on the same flight.’ We started talking more and more, and our energy – God put us on the right path. We've been getting to know each other and forming that bond off the field, and it'll carry over onto the field.”

Elam said he was impressed with what he saw from Benford during the first practice of rookie minicamp.

“He's a heck of a player,” he said. “He did well. I mean, it's awesome, just being a pro, you know what I'm saying? Just seeing everybody, how they’re working, what they do well, and things I see that they can critique. We’re just thriving off each other, trying to push each other.”

Elam admitted he hadn’t seen much of Benford’s film before he was drafted. By this point, that’s nothing new for Benford. At every level, he has been somewhat overlooked, and he knows what it takes to get noticed.

“Just got to work,” he said. “Just got to impact the team the best way possible. We've got to focus on now. It's always good to look at the future and have a goal or a dream, but you've got to focus on where your feet are at. You've got to focus on the now. You've got to best prepare yourself for that.”

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News Sports Reporter

I started at The Buffalo News in 2009, and have previously been honored as one of the top 10 beat writers in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors for my coverage of the Bills. I live in Amherst with my wife, Melissa, and son, Elliott.

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