Benson shows no fear on -- or off -- the field

AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas running back Cedric Benson is probably in some conversations about this season's Heisman Trophy -- and not just because he said he'd rather win the stiff-armed statue than beat Oklahoma, if given a choice.

Benson, however, can put himself squarely in the middle of any of those conversations Saturday with an average rushing performance against the Sooners. Average as in his current rushing average of 186.5 yards per game, which leads Division I-A. A Texas victory wouldn't hurt, either.

Benson may be the only Texas running back to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, but he has never had a big game against Oklahoma, which has beaten UT four straight times. Benson's freshman year, he didn't even get to play against OU because coach Mack Brown didn't think he was ready. Benson went on to run for 1,053 yards that season.

The last two years, Benson has rushed 34 times for an unimpressive 75 yards (2.2 yards per carry) and one touchdown. But Benson didn't have the experience he has now on the offensive line. He didn't have Vince Young established as the starter at quarterback, providing a running threat to draw some of the defense's attention away from Benson in UT's new Gun-n-Run offense.

He didn't have the rest of the team buying into the system the way they have this year. And he didn't have the incentive of the NFL staring him in the face next year.

"This is my last season, my last year," Benson said. "I want to leave a big stamp here. I'm just putting it all on the line, leaving everything I've got on the field."

When you get Benson to elaborate on that point a little bit by asking him about his best trait as a running back, you get to the heart of Benson's success at Texas. With 188 yards rushing against Baylor Saturday, he passed Earl Campbell (4,443) into second place on UT's career rushing list behind Ricky Williams (6,279) with 4,452 yards.

"I'm just not afraid," Benson said. "Not afraid of my opponent. I don't feel like there is one man who can put fear in me. The best way to sum it up is: I don't care what happens to me out there because I'm going to put it all on the line."

Benson has been a slow starter the past two years. He rushed for 100 yards or more only once in the first six games of 2003 and only three times in the first seven
games of 2002.

With games of 181 (North Texas), 188 (Arkansas), 189 (Rice) and 188 (Baylor) yards for a total of 746 in four games, Benson is on pace to break Williams' school record for getting to 1,000 yards rushing the fastest. Williams did in 144 carries, Benson is on pace to do it in 115 carries.

Benson could also threaten Williams' school single-season rushing record of 2,124 yards if he keeps up his current pace.

Nothing would make Benson happier, considering he chose Texas because his idol is Williams. The similarities range from running style to hairstyle (Benson started wearing dreadlocks when Ricky was at UT.)

"I'm having a great time, blowing up so big the first part of the season," Benson said. "It's been a lot of smiles."

Texas coach Mack Brown said Benson's commitment to working out with the team over the summer instead of playing pro baseball in the Los Angeles Dodgers' organization has paid off. Benson was a 12th-round selection of the Dodgers in 2001 and reported to their rookie league team in Vero Beach, Fla., the first two summers of his college career.

"He looks as good as I've ever seen," Brown said. "He looks faster to me. And him spending time with his offensive line and teammates over the summer has probably been invaluable."

Benson joked with reporters Monday about whether they would chose winning the national championship or beating Oklahoma.

"Come on, you have to pick one," Benson said.

The comment was meant to poke fun at his response to Doug Gottlieb's question on ESPN Radio a couple weeks ago that evoked a buzz-worthy response from Benson. Gottlieb asked Benson if he'd rather win the Heisman Trophy or beat Oklahoma. Benson picked the Heisman.

"I knew at the time when I answered it would stir things up," Benson said. "But I don't think it's any big deal now."

Benson says the only thing that matters to him is the national championship, adding that if he had been asked to pick between the Heisman Trophy and a national title, the answer would have been simple.

The senior running back from Midland, Texas, can help the Longhorns and himself take a step toward both with a win on Saturday.

Chip Brown covers the Big 12 for The Dallas Morning News.