Before Malcolm Brown and Jonathan Gray, Texas would to give the ball to Cedric Benson and watch him run down the throats of opposing defenses. Few college players will prove more productive, more consistent, and have a greater impact than Cedric Benson did for the Longhorns from 2001-2004.
Cedric Benson is from Midland, Texas and attended Lee high school where he remains top five all time in rushing yards in the state. He was a five star recruit who signed with Texas in 2001. Benson was two sport athlete (baseball) and a strong student as well, but punted baseball to focus on football at UT. He was the starting running back for the Longhorns as an 18 year old freshman in 2001.
If Benson was not the best player in the conference from the day he first stepped onto the field, he was in the top ten. Benson accrued 1256 yards from scrimmage in his first year and got Freshman All-American honors. In his Sophomore season, Benson took on another 80 carries in his workload and saw his per carry effectiveness dip a bit.
It was the 2003 season when Benson really exploded onto the national scene as the top back in the Big XII, jumping to over 5.0 yards per carry as a 20-year old third year starter. He led the nation in touchdowns scored with 22, and was a first team All-American. The following season, as a senior, Texas paired Benson in the backfield with a young, exciting redshirt freshman at quarterback by the name of Vince Young. Even though Young himself was every bit a threat to break a long carry as Benson, Texas gave Benson a career high in touches as a senior. His 343 touches in just 12 games led all of college football and he scored another 20 touchdowns, and was honored as a first-team All-American for the second straight season.
It is not a stretch to suggest Cedric Benson would change the way football is played: no player since has rushed 1100 times. No player has even rushed 1050 times. Benson was the last college player to be run into the ground in a college scheme. He was drafted by the Bears 4th overall in the 2005 draft, but only stuck three seasons in Chicago. Benson was largely ineffective as a rookie, and with the full-time role in 2007, although he was a key cog in the Bears run to the Super Bowl in 2006. The Bears released him prior to the 2008 season after a pair of very dubious arrests in Texas one for marijuana possession and one for unlawful trespassing. Benson was sentenced to a total of 8 days in prison.
The Bengals gave him a second chance in 2008, and although Benson was never the player he was drafted to be out of Texas, he was a very productive player for Cincinnati, putting up career bests in his age 27-29 seasons (2009-2010) rushing for a combined 3,429 yards and 19 touchdowns while playing in 44 of a possible 48 games over those three seasons in a featured role. That is a 78 yard per game average. Always a contributor through the air, Benson added another 833 yards in his pro career on receptions.
Benson’s career is only hall-of-fame worthy if you also consider his time in high school and college as part of the story, but that story is how a man managed to carry the ball 1,600 times in his eight year pro career after carrying the ball 1,100 times in college. Eric Dickerson, the greatest workhorse back in NFL history, carried the ball 3,000 times in the NFL, and even he carried under 800 times at SMU. Benson, unfortunately, accomplished a lot of what he would accomplish as a football player before he was drafted into the NFL. Thing is, he accomplished a lot of things after that point too, and though his story cannot be told without including his pre-age 22 seasons, Benson remained a productive, durable workhorse until the age of 30 — when he broke down for good.
Benson was many things as a pro, but a draft bust would not be one of them. Prior to being a pro, he was only one of the most accomplished and decorated athletes we have ever seen.