AUSTIN, Texas - Over the summer, Texas backfield teammates Cedric Benson and Will Matthews drove to the lakes west of town looking for the tallest cliffs they could find.
Challenging each other in a climb to the top, the winner would hurl himself off and plunge into the waters 30, 40 and even 50 feet below.
“I would dive,” Benson said. “Will doesn’t dive.”
That’s just how Benson approached his senior season: Go full speed and hold nothing back. Benson stands to rewrite much of the Longhorns’ record book and join Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams as the greatest backs in school history.
With 369 yards in two games for No. 6 Texas, he’s exactly halfway to what he needed this year to pass Campbell (4,445) for second place on UT’s career rushing list.
Benson is unlikely to catch Williams (6,207) on that list, but other school records by his childhood idol are within reach. He’s 23 touchdowns shy of Williams’ record 72 and just two games away from matching Williams’ record 11 straight games with a TD. And another 1,000-yard season would make him just the sixth player in Division I history to do it in four straight seasons, something Campbell and Williams didn’t do.
But only now, says coach Mack Brown, are fans beginning to appreciate Benson’s accomplishments.
Such is the price of expectation.
Benson’s career at Midland Lee High School, which he led to three straight state championships, was the stuff of legend before he even graduated as the fourth-leading rusher in Texas history with more than 8,400 yards.
He was the first high school player in 44 years to be featured on the cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine, a bible of preseason football for Texas college and high schools. More than 32,000 people watched him win his last state title at Texas’ Royal-Memorial Stadium, eight times the crowd that watched the Longhorns’ men’s basketball team play at the same time less than a mile away.
In college, though, Benson didn’t start the first five games in 2001 and got in for a single play in a 14-3 loss to Oklahoma — and then only because the starter lost a shoe.
Once in the starting lineup, though, Benson ripped off five consecutive 100-yard games and became the first Texas freshman to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
As a sophomore, he ran for 1,293 yards, statistically one of the best in school history but less than it might have been after Benson failed to crack 100 yards in the last five games.
In 2003, Benson made headlines for the wrong reasons midway through the season when he was arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge after forcing his way into an apartment to look for a reported stolen TV.
It was an incident he now calls “stupid.” He was sentenced to eight days in jail but didn’t serve time because of overcrowding at the jail and time credited for good behavior.
After the rough start, he closed with four straight games over 100 yards and finished the season with 1,360 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Faced with a chance to turn pro early, Benson decided to stay at Texas, looking for one last chance at Big 12 and national titles.
“I became so used to winning championships in high school,” he said. “That’s what’s been missing here. We have to win a championship.”
There was also the possibility of winning a Heisman Trophy, although Brown says they’ve never discussed about it. With contenders such as Kansas State’s Darren Sproles and Missouri’s Brad Smith stumbling through recent losses, Benson should figure prominently in the Heisman watch in coming weeks.
“That will be icing on the cake,” Benson said.
To prepare for this season, Benson gave up his summer job playing baseball with the Los Angeles Dodgers rookie league team in Florida.
Instead of shagging fly balls, he worked out on campus, lifting weights, running sprints and catching passes. He also got tattoos on both forearms, a flame design that runs from his wrists to his elbows.
“This my own personal motivation,” Benson said. “I’m the fire starter on the team.”
That’s been true so far.
Benson’s first carry of the season was a 38-yard touchdown against North Texas. In last week’s 22-20 win over Arkansas, he ran for 188 yards on 29 carries and scored two touchdowns. The last, on a pass from Vince Young in the second half, proved to be the game winner.
“Ricky Williams always seemed like he got better as the game went on, and was dominant in the fourth quarter,” Brown said. “Cedric does that same thing. He was fresh at the end of the game and wanted more.”
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