Benson, Backfield Should Ignite 'Explosive' UT O

RB <B>Cedric Benson </B>entertained the thought last December<I>: take the money and run</I>. Instead, he deferred those NFL mega-dollars to make one last run at his list of unrealized goals at Texas: win the Big 12. Beat OU. Rewrite the record books. Go home with the Heisman. For Benson, it's now or never.

Some of those aspirations should have been attained by now, Benson said. True dat, but most players won't admit it. He is the most candid Longhorn on the roster, and does not hesitate to voice his displeasure over Texas' close-but-no-cigar finishes during his tenure. While some teammates and coaches downplay the second Saturday in October (suggesting that Texas fans are obsessed in ways Sooners are not), Benson is "sick of losing" to Oklahoma and thinks about the Sooners every day. While some thump their chests over the current string of Top 12 finishes, Benson reminds us that he did not come to Texas to finish second. While other Division-I athletes talk as if they are not the least bit interested in individual honors, Benson is clear that the carrot in front of his facemask is a trip to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. (A reporter recently asked if his dreadlocks were a tribute to Ricky Williams. Benson said, "Call it a tribute to the Heisman.")

Benson knows that individual success should translate into team success. He also knows the team must win (and probably has to win on October 9) for him to be a Heisman frontrunner. He has also acknowledged that a banner year should result in a multi-million dollar NFL signing bonus that should be far more lucrative than it was last spring. The consensus among pigskin pundits is Benson will be a First Round pick next April.

Some label Benson as self-absorbed; others say he is refreshingly honest. Virtually every athlete of Benson's caliber wants the ball and wants to win awards. They usually won't talk publicly about it, whereas Benson's middle name is Gimmetheball.

"When I first got here, all I wanted to do is play and all I wanted to do is start. I wanted to be the man," he said.

He insists he is now "more mature," before adding, "This year I feel like I am more of the man than I've ever felt before."

Offered as evidence of both, Benson gave up summer minor league baseball to run sprints, pull blocking sleds and perform more body squats this past month than in his previous three summers combined. It means he will be in playing shape by the time he reports to pre-season camp on August 9, and that hasn't happened before.

"I wanted to put everything I had into this last season of football," Benson said. "I've been doing a lot of running and that's been a great help to me. My legs are strong and my shoulders are strong."

He and All-American WLB Derrick Johnson have also taken it upon themselves to try to establish off-the-field camaraderie so the chemistry will be in place by the time the season begins on September 4.

"Cedric is running faster, he' stronger and he's become a better team leader," head coach Mack Brown said. "He gave up pro baseball to come back and work hard in the off-season."

Benson ran for 1,360 yards and a nation's best 21 rushing TDs en route to consensus first-team All-Big 12 honors as a junior. He also ranked second nationally in scoring (11.17 ppg) in 2003. After Texas became a Zone Read offense at mid-season, Benson rushed for 1,002 yards (167 ypg) and 14 TDs during the Horns' last six games.

"This offense can be so explosive, I can't even put it into words," Benson said.

His 3,706 career rushing yards (No. 3 on the UT all-time list) in 31 starts are tops among NCAA D-I players. He is the only NCAA D-I back that has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of the last three seasons. Yet, there are two studs in his own conference (Kansas State RB Darren Sproles, OU's Heisman winning QB Jason White) who are getting far more pre-season pub than Benson.

"That only gives me the drive to drive harder," he said.

While Benson is the designated driver in the Longhorn backfield, junior RB Selvin Young is a near perfect complement to Benson's between-the-tackle, slashing style. It became obvious as the '03 season wore on that Young never fully recovered from a groin injury suffered September 20 at Rice. He appeared in 11 games (just 151 yards on 35 carries) last season but is now expected to display his hiccup-quickness that allows him to turn the corner and assume both punt and kickoff return duties in 2004. (He averaged 24.4 yards per KO return last year, including a 97-yard return for TD in the home opener against New Mexico State.)

But one of our sources close to the program insists Texas' top backup is RS -freshman RB Erik Hardeman. At 6-1, 215-pounds, his low center of gravity makes him ideal in goal line and short-yardage situations. The Pflugerville product also possesses deceptive speed.

Freshman Ramonce Taylor, a first-team Texas 5A all-state RB, will be on campus next week. Although he is listed as a defensive back, he could also get a look at running back, where he amazed as a senior at Belton. "I think that's the place you'd definitely have to look at him to start with," Belton head coach Jay Warrick told IT earlier this year.

No matter who is backing Benson, there is no one he'd rather have beside him in the backfield (or, closer to the truth, blocking for him) than senior FB Will Matthews. The fifth-year player has reportedly added 10 pounds to his 6-3 frame (and, no, that's not 10 pounds of hair) so that he now tips the scales at 260. Matthews tallied all of 49 yards on 13 carries last season but came on strong toward the end, recording a personal best three rushing TDs in that 55-16 massacre at No. 21 Oklahoma State.

RS-sophomore Albert Hardy (5-11, 235) can play both FB and TB. He saw action in eight games last year at FB, totaling 67 yards on 14 carries. Coaches praised Hardy for a "great" spring but, otherwise, there's not a whole heckuva lot of depth at FB.

With the declared emphasis on tight ends this past spring (the emphasis was there last spring and last August as well), it's hard to predict what role the FBs will have this fall. What we think we will see is both the RBs and FBs counted on more this season as pass catchers. Texas, of course, is breaking in new receivers. There was also a declared emphasis on the intermediate passing game this past spring, plus we are all aware of Brown's distrust of untested talent until after something bad happens. Besides, Benson insists he is "always open" out of the backfield because no one is expecting a RB to be the primary receiver.

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