Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
There will be new faces in a few places for Georgia Tech tonight when the Yellow Jackets open the season against No. 25 Tennessee in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, yet even though running backs KirVonte Benson and Nathan Cottrell have never carried the ball in a college game, they've been around for a while.
You might even say the third-year sophomores have come from similar places.
Benson, Tech's starting B-back, redshirted his freshman season after suffering a knee injury as a senior at Marietta High School. He played in seven games in 2016.
Cottrell was bucking for playing time at A-back as a freshman before suffering a preseason knee injury of his own. He figures to be prominent against his hometown Volunteers, especially if junior Clinton Lynch's injury keeps him out of the A-back rotation. The Knoxville native played in 11-of-13 games last season.
It's hardly a surprise that both players are excited.
"It's very satisfying, a huge blessing to be named the starting B-back . . . " Benson said. "It's really, really good to hear your name called. I've worked real hard for this. We all worked real hard for this, and I'm glad Coach gave me the opportunity to ask me to make a play."
Cottrell returned kickoffs late last season, and the 5-11, 189-pound business administration major appeared at A-back, too, without rushing the ball.
Like Benson, he's been through a bit of a grinder on The Flats.
"I've had this game marked on my calendar since it was announced," Cottrell reported. "It's exciting. It's going to be a big game . . . I've learned a lot over the years. Freshman year, torn ACL and all that.
"Then I had to play kick returner some, but that whole time, I got to practice with the A-backs and learn all the drills and get everything down."
Tech's backfield was something of a spinning carousel in the offseason with leading rusher Dedrick Mills -- a preseason All-ACC selection -- dismissed from the team last month for violation of athletic department policies.
Before that, backup B-back Marcus Marshall, the team's second-leading rusher, transferred to James Madison.
Mills' departure opened competition at B-back between Benson (5-9, 211), fellow third-year sophomore Quaide Weimerskirch (6-0, 217) and freshmen Jerry Howard (6-0, 215) and Jordan Ponchez-Mason (6-1, 205).
Benson's speed and his ability to batter won the job. As a high school sophomore, he won the state title in the 100 meters in 10.65 seconds.
While he played just two seasons of high school football, the young man totaled 3,587 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns while adding 682 receiving yards and four more scores.
"He had a good spring practice," Johnson said. "We recruited him to play that position . . . he's probably the fastest guy we've had at B-back, certainly since Jon Dwyer, and maybe faster than Jon . . .
"I think he's got a good skill set for it. Will he play fast and tough? We'll see. If not, then one of those other guys will play. It's like at every other position. He's got the opportunity; what's he going to do with it?"
Chances are Benson and the B-backs will be busy in the Chik-fil-A Kickoff Game, and the same goes for Cottrell.
Johnson typically rotates offensive plays in with a stable of A-backs, and with Qua Searcy and J.J. Green listed on the depth chart as starters and Cottrell and Lynch as backups, there is an asterisk.
Lynch, the team's fourth-leading rusher in '16 -- and most explosive offensive player -- recently has been slowed by an undisclosed injury.
"Depending on what happens with Clinton, at least for the first game, that may be a three-man rotation [at A-back]," said Johnson, who also joked about rotating plays in with quarterbacks. "If [Lynch] doesn't play, [Cottrell] is going to get more reps and take more of the load."
That'll be just fine with Nathan, who brings his own set of hot wheels.
Once timed at 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash, he rushed for 1,956 yards as a senior on Knoxville West High School, and finished his prep career with 3,974 yards and 48 touchdowns, not to mention an average carry of 11.8 yards.
Add 35 receptions for 685 yards and nine touchdowns to a resume that included five kickoffs returned for touchdowns to go with a 40.7-yard kickoff return average and Cottrell's not exactly bringing cement shoes.
No, he hasn't carried the ball from scrimmage in a game yet, but he's put in so many reps that he's ready to roll.
"It's nice to have all that experience," he said of two years of spring and fall practices and a season in which he played A-back. "It's not necessarily game experience, but seeing what it's like in practices and scrimmages."
Anyone who predicted this time two years ago that Benson would be in today's spot would've been playing long odds given his bumpy transition to college.
Johnson said, "KirVonte . . . has grown tremendously. He has become about 150 times more accountable and sometimes with young guys that's what happens; they have to grow up.
"Unfortunately, in today's time, a lot of the guys we get have never been held accountable, so they have to learn."
Benson admits to a rough adjustment period, all coming while he was rehabilitating that injured knee.
"My freshman year wasn't the best year for me," he said. "It was kind of a struggle getting accustomed to the college lifestyle, all the meetings, how much they depend on you, what you have to do, be there . ..
"From that standpoint, I have grown a lot more accountable . . . It's a huge step up from what I was doing . . . Coming in was the roughest time for me. They taught me quick . . . you've got to do grown-man things."
The Jackets will look for grown-man efforts from newcomers tonight, and Cottrell said he and Benson will be up to the task as Tech plays Tennessee for the first time since 1987.
"I think KirVonte's going to be great. He's matured a lot," Nathan said. "He's fast, he can run the ball really well, has vision. It's big shoes to feel, but I feel confident he can do it and he'll do exactly what he needs to do.
"It's exciting to be able to build it back up again [against the Vols]. Being from Tennessee, I think it's exciting to get to play in the game, play [in Mercedes-Benz Stadium] for the first time."