Georgia Tech A-back J.J. Green remembers KirVonte Benson as a freshman. Like a lot of college freshmen, Benson was someone who needed to grow up a little bit, as Green tells it.
“I remember when KirVonte first got here,” Green said. “I just told him, ‘Brother, just go to class. Just go to class. That’s all they want you to do.’”
Benson’s own memories dovetail with Green’s.
“My freshman year wasn’t the best for me,” he said. “It was kind of struggling, getting accustomed to all the college lifestyle, the meetings, how much they depend on you, what you had to do to be there, (coach Paul Johnson’s admonition that) ‘If you’re on time, you’re late.’”
Benson is now a sophomore with junior class standing. When the Yellow Jackets play Tennessee Monday night in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they will count heavily on Benson. He sounds ready for that responsibility, and so does his team.
“He has become about 150 times more accountable, and sometimes with young guys, that’s what happens,” Johnson said. “They have to grow up.”
Benson has replaced Dedrick Mills, the 2016 starter and preseason All-ACC selection who was dismissed from the team August 18 for violating athletic-department rules, believed to be a third offense of the substance-abuse policy. On the surface, at least, it was a significant loss for the Jackets, as the four players remaining at the position include two freshmen (Jerry Howard and Jordan Ponchez-Mason) and two sophomores (Quaide Weimerskirch and Benson). Of the second-year players, Benson didn’t take a single snap last year at B-back, and Weimerskirch’s only carry was a fumble.
But Benson will be the starter at the workhorse position in the Tech offense, having earned it in the practices following Mills’ dismissal.
“It feels great,” Benson said. “Just to have an opportunity to have the ball in my hands, given the chance to show what I can do. I worked really hard for this.”
A year ago, Benson ascending to Tech’s No. 1 B-back spot would have seemed an unlikely scenario. In the 2016 preseason, Mills won the starting job as a freshman, and he was fending off Marcus Marshall, a sophomore who was the team’s leading rusher in 2015. It looked like Tech had a solid 1-2 punch for the next three years. Moreover, Benson was also behind Weimerskirch, also a freshman last season. Lastly, he was recovering from an ACL tear suffered in his senior season at Marietta High.
Benson’s father Kirk said that his son, the second eldest of five, wasn’t discouraged, but acknowledged it was difficult, given how he was used to being the centerpiece going back to his days at Marietta. Benson said he took hope from then-position coach Bryan Cook’s standard that the best back would play. Little did anyone know that, within 12 months, Marshall would transfer (to James Madison) and Mills would be dismissed.
“I was kind of saying, ‘Well, I may not start, but hopefully I can play,’” Benson said. “And I know the potential was there, and I know everything was going to be there. I was never discouraged about being first, second, third or fourth. I was going to help the team no matter where I fit in on the field.”
Benson also was not distinguishing himself with his comportment. He was suspended for the second game of the season, against Mercer. Benson’s father said his understanding was that it was for multiple occasions of tardiness. Kirk, an accountant, said that he was a “hands-on father” when KirVonte was in high school, making sure that he got places on time, and that his son struggled with the freedom of college.
“It’s one of those things where he definitely learned that it’s serious business, it’s not a game,” Kirk Benson said.
His son has responded.
“I was coming in with a high-school mentality, and they just taught me quick that this is not high school anymore,” he said. “This is college. You’ve got to do grown-man things. You’re accountable like a grown man. It was all just time and experience.”
The football potential has not been a question. Benson won the Class 6A state 100-meter dash championship as a sophomore at Marietta in 11.0 seconds. He ran for 3,587 yards in two seasons with the Blue Devils and scored 36 rushing touchdowns. Johnson said that Benson is Tech’s fastest B-back since Jonathan Dwyer, who starred in 2008 and 2009, and perhaps even faster.
Benson is shorter than the usual for the position at 5-foot-9, but packs a punch at 215 pounds. He can squat 600 pounds, according to Johnson. Benson’s father said that KirVonte – named for his father and two cousins that Kirk and wife Diana Pitts-Benson raised, Shantaye and Daivonna – could walk at nine months old. Even more, Kirk insists that his son could pick up and carry a 45-pound weight.
Said Kirk, “I was kind of stunned.”
Benson can reel off 500 push-ups and 500 sit-ups, taking care of the former with just one or two short breaks.
“That man is strong,” said Green, the A-back. “It’s like another bull in the ring. I don’t see too many guys that can tackle him one on one. It might take about five, to be honest, not one or two. He’s going to do a great job. I know he is.”
A lot is riding on Benson, or at least the B-back group. Tech’s offense depends on consistent, productive play from that position.
Mills, now at Garden City (Kansas) Community College, was proven and known. He could gain the tough yards, didn’t fumble and was relentless near the goal line. Now, the Jackets will have to ride with a quartet that may prove equally effective, but may not.
Benson gets the first crack. His father predicted a close win over the Volunteers and more yardage from the position than most are expecting.
“I think that Georgia Tech is going to see something special on Monday,” Kirk Benson said.
Benson’s coach certainly wouldn’t mind the prophecy coming to pass. It would be a lift for his team and a reward for a young man coming into his own.
“That’s the growing process, and I think he’s grown and he’s made leaps and strides that way,” Johnson said. “Now, he’s going to get his opportunity. What will he do with it? That’s going to be up to him.”