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When Fairfield High coach Keon Handley outlines what Indiana is getting in the last piece of its 2021 recruiting class, receiver Malachi Bennett, he can’t help but think of what he’s giving up.

“This is a kid that, honestly, as a coach, if I didn’t have to share him with the world, I’d keep him until I retired,” Handley said.

Obviously, Bennett is talented. At 6-foot-2, nearly 190 pounds, he’s considered a four-star prospect by recruiting services. He’s so talented, Bennett took snaps with Fairfield High when he was in eighth grade. He was a receiver, but Handley moved him to quarterback as a freshman, just to get the ball in his hands more.

For sure, a versatile, long, athletic receiver with ball skills just committed to the Hoosiers on Tuesday, and he will make things official Wednesday during national signing day. But Handley’s pride in Bennett goes beyond playmaking. Competing for a town that was ravaged by a tornado in 2017, Bennett has been a quintessential model citizen, becoming one of those beacons of light for a community in need of some positivity.

Handley will think way back, recalling a snap from Bennett’s freshman year, when he was actually flanked out wide on a fourth-and-13. Bennett snagged a pass that was two yards out of bounds. Somehow, he kept both feet in.

But what sticks in Handley’s mind are Bennett’s reactions to those plays.

“That infectious smile, man,” Handley said. “He’s going to be a guy, man, that truly Hoosier Nation is going to embrace. They are going to love to see it. They are going to love him.”

It’s been a long recruiting journey for Bennett. Again, he was anything but under the radar, and UAB — just an eight-minute drive from Fairfield’s campus — offered Bennett when he was a freshman. In August, Bennett shocked some prognosticators by initially choosing his hometown school over finalists that included Georgia, South Carolina, Louisville, and Ole Miss.

When Bennett decided to open things back up in November, the Hoosiers were able to make another pitch.

Most of IU’s work on the 2021 class was completed by December, when 13 freshmen and a grad transfer, D.J. Matthews, inked letters of intent. But this is an important addition for an ascending program.

IU receivers coach Grant Heard continues to replenish talent behind veterans Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall and now Matthews. Like with incoming freshmen Jordyn Williams and Jaquez Smith, who both hail from Georgia, Bennett is another addition via IU’s southeastern pipeline. He will be the highest-rated prospect of the three, slotting in as 247Sports’ No. 47 recruit nationally at receiver.

This is the Hoosiers continuing to build off their successes in 2020, which certainly affected Bennett’s decision-making process. IU has been on Handley’s radar, at least, since Jordan Howard transferred from UAB to the Hoosiers and made his way to the NFL. This past season just upped the program’s reputation.

Bennett, in return, brings an intriguing athletic background to the Hoosiers. His uncle is Earl Bennett, a former Vanderbilt receiver who played for the Chicago Bears from 2008-13. Along with his snaps under center and out wide, Bennett has also made plays as a defensive back for Fairfield. He had 29 tackles and two interceptions as a senior.

He has also starred on the hardwood for Fairfield. Bennett averaged better than 11 points and 6 rebounds per game for a state title team in 2020.

He is long, athletic, and fast. He has won with speed and in jump-ball situations. He is not necessarily a talker, but he will respond when shots are taken. He will block his chattiest adversaries until the whistle blows.

“He’s going to give you that million-dollar smile and laugh at you and let you know it’s going to be a long night,” Handley said. “If you really start talking to him, he’ll look back at you every time he catches the ball. He’ll let you know ‘You shouldn’t have woke me up. You shouldn’t have started this, because I’m going to finish it.’”

That combination of talent and character has made Bennett a foundational piece for Fairfield, beginning with those snaps at quarterback in 2017. He was slowed by a foot injury as a sophomore, but then he exploded for 45 catches, 821 yards and nine scores as a junior.

The pandemic set in during the spring, limiting Bennett’s ability to take official visits. But he still had his options, and Bennett initially picked UAB because of its family feel. Handley knows that kind of atmosphere was a priority for Bennett when his recruitment opened again in November.

Handley tried to stay hands-off with Bennett’s recruiting process. But he cares so much, Handley did have a conversation with Heard just to get a sense of what IU could offer.

“Is he going to be with someone who is going to love him like he’s one of their own children? Because that’s kind of the way I’ve coached Malachi, like he’s one of my own sons,” Handley said.

That is the environment IU has pitched to recruits, based on Tom Allen’s “love each other” mantra. Again, Handley wouldn’t give up Bennett if this wasn’t just the nature of prep sports, but IU is a suitable next stop.

“Once I gave him my blessing and I supported him, that made his decision a lot easier,” Handley said, “because, like I said, he’s a kid that values my opinion and I value his sanity, knowing he’s making the best decision for himself.”

Like most recruits, Bennett hopes to play early. If his career tracks in college like it did in high school, he should have an opportunity to do that.

Regardless, Bennett’s supporters are proud to see him making his way to IU.

“The city of Fairfield, we had some struggles, our community kind of dwindled with numbers,” Handley said, referring to the aftermath of the 2017 tornado. “For the kids that we have in the community, these guys that we’ve had over the past four years have given them hope.

“I look forward to seeing him play in the fall — and scoring those touchdowns with that infectious smile.”