By Mac Friday
PHOENIX – Throughout much of the 2020 NFL season, Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury wasn’t optimistic about the progress of rookie running back Eno Benjamin, who struggled to adjust to the demands and pressures that come with the professional game. The young running back, drafted in the seventh round, contributed on special teams and in practice exclusively as he was unable to break through to in-game reps at running back.
That all changed when the former Arizona State standout showed up to training camp in the summer. His focus, attention levels and commitment provided a springboard for Benjamin’s success.
“(He was struggling) the entire year (in 2020),” Kingsbury told reporters after the Cardinals Week Nine win over the 49ers. “He came back a different guy. From Day One and training camp on, and even when we had a couple of weeks with the players here, you could just tell there’s a different type of focus, different type of attention to detail and the physicality he showed on special teams has been tremendous along with his physicality in the run game.”
Benjamin believes “it all starts in practice. Working for the opportunity and when the opportunity presents itself, being able to take off with it (was a blessing).”
In his early days with the Cardinals and transitioning into this year, Benjamin has found time serving as a useful resource on special teams. He frequently lines up as the kick returner, a role that proved an adjustment.
“I never really played special teams in college,” Benjamin said. “Learning that whole thing and how to go through that and the technical stuff in practice has helped me this year. It’s all kind of slowed down for me and it allows me to grasp it all much faster.”
In his second season in the NFL, the backup running back took his new, increased role of operation and ran with it, in part due to the injury to normal backup Chase Edmonds. Benjamin has embraced the role. He logged his first NFL touches from scrimmage in late October against the Houston Texans.
He compared his NFL journey to the path he took from high school in Wylie, Texas, to Arizona State, where he learned under experienced running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage as a freshman.
“It was a similar thing to moving from high school to college,” Benjamin said. “Being the guy, then you have to come in and sit behind some guys and learning everything all over again. It was kind of the same situation here, just being able to lean on the veteran guys here and ask questions and trust that as well (was helpful).”
Benjamin’s breakout moment came the week after he logged his first touches, against the San Francisco 49ers. On second and 5 from the San Francisco 21-yard line, Cardinals quarterback Colt McCoy took the snap and handed it off to Benjamin, who cut to his left before lowering his shoulder and flattening 49ers corner back Dre Kirkpatrick. Benjamin stayed on his feet and scampered into the end zone for the first professional touchdown of his career.
“You saw the other day, lower his shoulder and score on that touchdown run,” Kingsbury said. “He’s been great. And you can see the team is proud of how far he’s come. And it’s a great story so far.”
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray was one of several players who celebrated with Benjamin in the end zone after his score, clearly happy with his teammate’s achievement. Murray, a Texas high school football legend from his time at Allen High School, shares an extra level of connection and appreciation for his home-state teammate.
“Eno is from Texas, so anytime I get to see someone from Texas, who I’ve followed his entire career and knowing what he can do, (it’s special),” Murray said. “He’s a baller, I already knew that, and just to see him finally get to touch the field and get to score a touchdown in the way he did it, that’ll turn anybody up, it was exciting to see that.”
Across the previous two games for the Cardinals, Benjamin logged 12 more touches against the Panthers and Seahawks, proving he can be a reliable option in the backfield if called upon. Through four games, Benjamin has recorded 23 touches for 86 yards and a touchdown, his career-long the 21-yard run for six.
Now finally finding production in his professional career, Benjamin recalls a conversation with Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, when the executive told Benjamin he believed in him. Going into his second season, it was exactly what the young running back needed to hear to find success on the gridiron again.
“(It helped me) to go out there and play with confidence,” Benjamin said. “Knowing the head guy who oversees things believes in you, I think that says something and that speaks volumes. There were some ups and downs last year, but I think now that I am really grounded, and I see what’s going on, it helps me play faster.”