SAN JOSE -- San Jose State's Bené Benwikere says he doesn't fear any opposing wide receiver.
The Spartans' senior cornerback, projected by some as about a fifth-round pick in next May's NFL draft, has plenty of experience against some of the best.
Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Paul Richardson. That's a collection of outstanding receivers any team would love to have. For Benwikere, that was his daily competition in practice at Serra High-Gardena.
"He would hold his own against Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and those guys and not even blink twice," Serra coach Scott Altenberg said of Benwikere.
Each of those players could eventually be competing in the NFL. Woods is already there as a second-round pick of the Buffalo Bills this year after an All-America career at USC. Lee is a junior at USC who, despite being out because of a knee injury, projects as a first-round pick in 2014. Richardson is enjoying a tremendous bounce-back junior season at Colorado after missing 2012 because of a torn ACL and seems destined for the NFL.
Benwikere, meanwhile, tied for second in the nation with seven interceptions last year. This season, he leads the Mountain West Conference and is second in the nation with an average of two pass breakups per game. He credits the daily battles in high school with helping prepare him.
"We knew each day in practice we were going to compete and push each other," said Benwikere, who has 12 career interceptions. "We had some real battles in practice so when we got into games, it was all about just having fun with each other."
It was easy at times for Benwikere to get lost in the shuffle. During his senior season, Serra went 15-0 and beat Marin Catholic-Kentfield in the CIF Division III state bowl championship game. A lot of the focus was on Woods, one of the nation's top recruits, and juniors Lee and George Farmer. All three ended up at USC, although Farmer's career has been derailed by several injuries.
"I would tell every recruiter that came to town, 'This kid's as good as anybody. I know he's not going to run a 4.3, but this kid's an amazing football player,' " Altenberg said of Benwikere.
Benwikere turned into a gem for then-San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre, who now coaches Richardson at Colorado. MacIntyre spoke about the intangibles that can be expected from products of that powerhouse high school program, which produced former SJSU star Duke Ihenacho, now with the Denver Broncos.
"All the guys from Serra have a winning attitude toward them, have a little swagger so to speak, they bring that confidence level to the team," MacIntyre said.
An injury to Ihenacho paved the way for Benwikere to earn significant playing time as a freshman. He started nine of the 13 games at safety and was fourth on the team with 74 tackles. When Ihenacho returned the next season, Benwikere's role decreased.
Benwikere opened last year as a reserve defensive back, playing mostly in nickel situations. He finally became a full-time starter in the seventh game, and Big Play Bené seemed to rise to the occasion.
He had a momentum-turning interception just before halftime against UC Davis. He had a hand in three turnovers in a win over Texas-San Antonio, then produced defensive scores in wins over Idaho and New Mexico State. He saved his best for last, recording three interceptions in a nationally televised win over Louisiana Tech in the regular-season finale and blocking a punt for a safety in the Military Bowl victory over Bowling Green.
Benwikere continued this year with three interceptions, including picks in the past two games.
"He makes big plays and not just sporadically," Spartans coach Ron Caragher said.
Last year's breakthrough also came as players and coaches noticed a renewed Benwikere.
"He's really matured a lot over the years," linebacker Keith Smith said this summer. "Last year was the biggest jump when he started buying in to what the coaches were saying and not even worrying about himself. Now he's a full-on team player."
MacIntyre also noticed a different player last year.
"I think part of it was his work ethic and competitiveness throughout a game changed," he said. "When he started doing that every day in practice, it carried over to the games. He always had the ability, now you can see the results."
Follow Jimmy Durkin at Twitter.com/Jimmy_Durkin.
San Jose State (4-3, 3-1 Mountain West) at UNLV
(5-3, 3-1), 1 p.m.