Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart
The first call went to his parents, and KirVonte Benson nearly scared the daylights out of them.
Shortly after reading that Paul Johnson had tabbed him his starting B-back for Georgia Tech's season opener against Tennessee on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network), the redshirt sophomore rushed to tell his family at their home in Marietta, Ga.
"I immediately called my parents and said, `Did you get the news?' They told me, `No, I didn't know. What happened? Is something wrong?'" Benson recalled.
"I said there's nothing wrong that's bad. I got moved to starting B-back."
His parents were so ecstatic, they drove down that night to surprise him at the team's preseason hotel. After treating him to dinner and a haircut -- his seven-year-old sister, Dilynngher, was also in tow - Benson and his father shared a heart-to-heart.
"He just told me to take it one day at a time. Be natural. Don't be heavy-headed. Take it as a regular day's program. You've trained for this. You've prepared for this. Anything could have happened. Take advantage of it," he said.
He'll look to heed that advice on Monday when the Yellow Jackets face the Volunteers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. For the 5-9, 211-pound Benson, his first career start will also (likely) mean his first career carry. He appeared in seven games last year, mostly on special teams.
Benson rose to the top of the depth chart thanks to some unexpected attrition at B-back: Tech lost last year's top two producers at the position, both underclassmen, in the offseason. Each rushed for more than 600 yards last season.
But unexpected doesn't always mean unprepared and Johnson sounded buoyant - if not downright defiant - when asked whether Benson can maintain that production.
"Certainly those guys who played last year were good players, but it wasn't like, `Oh my god, we've got to cancel the season because we don't have them.' They were unknown when they played a year ago," he said.
What isn't unknown, at least within the Jackets' program, is Benson's physical potential. Johnson, normally parsimonious with his praise, gave a head-turning assessment of his abilities Monday.
"He's got really good speed. He's probably the fastest B-back we've had since Jon Dwyer, actually," Johnson said on his radio show, referring to the Yellow Jackets' 2008 ACC Offensive Player of the Year (coincidentally, Dwyer and Benson are both from Marietta).
"It's going to take him a little bit of time to get all the reads down in there, probably. But certainly he's got the ability to be a home-run hitter and we haven't had that, really, in a while," Johnson added.
While it's true Benson doesn't have any official statistics at Tech, he has already posted some impressive numbers. As a sophomore at Marietta High, he won a state title in the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.65 seconds (bloodlines help - his Mom, Diana, ran track at Coppin State). During the Jackets' offseason conditioning program he squatted 505 pounds three times, the best on the team.
-- GT Iron Jackets (@GTIRONJACKETS) August 31, 2017
"[The coaches] wouldn't let me go up any more. I don't know my limits right now," he said. That explosiveness initially had Tech coaches penciling him in as an A-back. A relative latecomer to the sport -- he didn't start playing football full-time until 10th grade -- Benson moved to B-back during his true freshman season, which he sat out while recovering from knee surgery. He spent the year rehabbing and struggling to adjust to his new position.
"I didn't know where to go. I didn't know who to read. I didn't have to know what the offensive line did. Coming to college, playing college football, [the coaches] showed me the ropes on how to read your linemen. It's been a major improvement every day. Now it just comes second nature," he said.
Johnson said Benson's maturation on the field has coincided with a maturation off it.
"He has become about 150 times more accountable. And sometimes with young guys, that's what happens. They have to grow up and, unfortunately in today's time, a lot of guys have never been held accountable. So they have to learn. That's a growing process. And I think he's grown and he's made leaps and strides that way," he said.
With more reps available during spring practice, he also caught Johnson's eye with his consistency and play-making.
"He wanted a good picture -- he wanted to just see if I improved throughout the year, even from the injury and taking time off, coming off the fourth string. He just wanted to see if I can compete with the best," Benson said.
He'll now have a chance to showcase himself against a Tennessee defense that struggled to stop the run last season. Despite winning nine games, the Volunteers ranked 100th nationally in yards per rush allowed (5.00). They also allowed six runs of 60 or more yards, tied for the worst mark in the nation - a number that ought to pique the interest of a potential home-run hitter.
But Benson knows his spot as Tech's starting B-back isn't ironclad. Redshirt sophomore Quaide Weimerskirch and true freshmen Jerry Howard and Jordan Ponchez-Mason continue to challenge for snaps, a competition that figures to continue into the season.
"I believe all of us can play. I believe all of us have something to bring to the table," he said.
But the first opportunity against Tennessee will go to Benson, who has gone from biding his time to a featured role almost overnight. He plans on calling his mom before he goes to bed on Sunday and again before boarding the team bus, a ritual he has maintained throughout his Tech career.
"Now he's going to get his opportunity," said Johnson. "What will he do with it? It's going to be up to him."