Running After Ricky

FAYETTEVILLE -- The similarities are as clear as the Texas sky -- Two Longhorns tailbacks with dreadlocks, wearing No. 32 and chasing the elusive Heisman Trophy.

But Cedric Benson is not Ricky Williams.

"He's a little bit like Ricky, but not a lot," said Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson. "They're two different runners. Ricky is bigger than Cedric, so Cedric's game is that he might make you miss sometimes more that Ricky. Ricky will run through you sometimes.

"They're two great running backs, but Cedric, I can't really compare him to Ricky, he has his own style."

Whereas Williams was a bruising, 230-pound rusher when he won the Heisman in 1998, Benson has made the trophy's watch list as a speedy, 225-pounder who relies more on vision and balance than power running.

"Going against him in practice, you have to be on your Ps and Qs," said Johnson, who had a team-high 125 tackles last season and caused three fumbles in last Saturday's 65-0 win against North Texas. "How explosive he is. As soon as he gets the ball, he can get five yards in not even a second ... real fast.

"His explosiveness is remarkable."

Benson -- who lists Williams as the biggest influence on his sports career -- readies himself to rap artists like Texas' own Lil'Jon before games. The senior tuned up Saturday against North Texas with 181 yards on 15 carries and two touchdowns, including a 38-yarder on a zone read for the opening play.

The zone read requires quarterback Vincent Young's read of an unblocked defensive end or, in some cases, a linebacker. He can hand off to Benson, or keep it on a run around the end.

Arkansas is the only Southeastern Conference team that runs a zone read-type of play, but it's more of an option.

The Longhorns' version helped them gain 505 of their 673 yards total -- the third highest in school history -- on the ground in the opener.

"It is exciting to go in with the power-football mentality, knowing that's part of UT's offensive strategy week-in and week-out," Benson said. "I don't know if we're going to prove what we can do, I think that's been done before. We're just going to try and get a victory and come back home."

Benson has never been to Arkansas, but he's heard stories -- wild ones -- about Reynolds Razorback Stadium, where the Horns will battle the Hogs on Saturday night at 7:45.

"I expect crazy things to happen," Benson told the Houston Chronicle this week. "Somebody said there's a gate we come out of, and guys get on top of the cage and pee down. And they say the security guys sit there and laugh.

"I don't know if they will do that, but they say it's been done before."

Benson has been pouring it on opponents with more than 1,000 yards the past three seasons. If he reaches the plateau again, he'll become only the fifth player in NCAA Division I-A to rush for at least 1,000 yards in all four seasons.

He's the nation's active leader in rushing yards (3,887) and touchdowns (47) and needs only 557 yards to surpass Earl Campbell -- the 1977 Heisman Trophy winner -- for second on Texas' all-time rushing list, behind Williams' mark of 6,279.

"He's a competitor," said Texas senior receiver Tony Jeffrey. "He's one of those guys that I've had a chance to play with that just wants to win. I think that's what drives him the most."

In season's past, Benson was tabbed a slow starter, something which could be attributed to playing minor league baseball in the summer after being drafted in the 12th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2001.

But Benson hung up his baseball cleats this summer and is off to his best start ever.

"He's in better condition," said Texas coach Mack Brown. "We hit him in preseason and we hit him in spring practice. He hasn't been able to work out in the summers before. It's been tougher for him and more difficult to be in shape in the preseason.

"We feel like he had his best start the other night and hopefully, he can help us by continuing to improve."

Benson has often fought the slow starter label. He averaged 17.4 carries for 60 yards in the first six games last season and 24.5 carries for 167 yards in the final six.

In a 38-28 loss to Arkansas in Week 2, Benson had 13 carries for 27 yards, his second lowest output behind a 12-carry, 21-yard effort in a 65-13 loss to Oklahoma in Week 6.

"I look forward to playing (Arkansas) again," Benson said. "You always hope to better your performance. Although they don't have the same players or may not run some of the same packages, you always want to come out better than you did in the past and make a mark.

"I don't think it's really revenge. I think it's respect. You can't go out there seeking revenge, we've got to go out there seeking respect for our team."

It's been five years since a running back -- Wisconsin's Ron Dayne -- won the Heisman and six since Williams returned to Texas for his senior season to win the trophy.

Young likes Benson's chances of following in Williams' footsteps and returning the Heisman to Texas, but not because of the zone read or his playing ability.

"Ced's just a great guy with great character," Young said. "He's a humble guy and if he keeps doing the things he's doing, he should be up there."

As for Benson, he's just taking it all one zone read at a time.

"It's wonderful having your name mentioned, especially at a place like Texas," Benson said. "But I'm focusing on the victories. My high school coach (Midland Lee's John Parchman) taught me to just focus on putting points on the board and stats will come with it."

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