TEXAS SENIOR running back Cedric Benson paused to think about the question and then, in a hushed tone only a librarian could love, answered, "My head's right." That, in Benson's view, at least, is why he's having his best season and has emerged as a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy as the fifth-ranked Longhorns enter their annual showdown with No. 2 Oklahoma on Saturday in Dallas.
After rushing for 3,706 yards and 45 touchdowns in his first three seasons, Benson is putting together the kind of year that earns invitations to black-tie dinners in December. The 6-foot 217-pounder leads the nation in rushing with 186.5 yards per game and is averaging 7.6 yards per carry.
There are reasons for Benson's dominance besides his positive state of mind. He's coming off a summer during which, for the first time, he focused totally on football and was a regular participant in the team's voluntary workouts. (Benson spent parts of the previous three summers as a minor league infielder-outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers.) Texas also has its best offensive line since 1998, the year Ricky Williams won the Heisman. Moreover, the running ability of sophomore quarterback Vince Young has helped spread opposing defenses.
But mainly Benson says he has matured and learned from his mistakes. Last October he was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing after kicking down an apartment door in an attempt to recover a plasma TV he had reported stolen a year earlier. He pleaded no contest. "I'm 21 now, and when I got [to Texas] I was 18," he says. "There have been a lot of hurdles. A lot of lessons came along with those hurdles."
The NFL likes what it sees in Benson. C.O. Brocato, a Dallas-based scout for the Tennessee Titans who has covered the Southwest and Midwest for 30 years, believes Benson is a better pro prospect than Williams was. Brocato ranks Benson behind only Texas's Earl Campbell and Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders among the best running backs to come out of his region during his scouting tenure. "He's got the speed," Brocato says. "He's got great feet and quickness."
What he doesn't have is a mute button. In August 2003 he told the Austin media that he was "not really feeling respected" by Texas players and coaches. Then last month, Benson was asked by ESPN Radio host Doug Gottlieb whether it would mean more to him to win the Heisman or beat Oklahoma for the first time in his career.
Without hesitation, Benson said it would mean more to win the Heisman. In Austin, where Longhorns fans have suffered four straight losses to the Sooners, Benson's comment was as welcome as Kansas City barbecue. Radio shows and Internet message boards were swamped with responses from fans who called Benson selfish. In Benson's mind he was merely being honest. "Everyone says things just to make yourself feel good," he says. "I just tell the truth."
The truth is, Benson won't win the Heisman if he doesn't beat Oklahoma, and Texas can't win without a Heisman-calibre performance from Benson. --Gene Menez