Inside The Chart: Ground and Pound

Oct. 26, 2017

Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart

The job isn’t for the faint of heart. Duties include, but are not limited to: cut blocking, shrugging off tackles from 300-pound linemen, grinding out yards after contact and working well in tight spaces.

Qualifications include: strength, balance, ruggedness and reflexes. Ability to take a pounding is a must. No exceptions.

In Paul Johnson’s spread-option offense, B-back requires a special breed of applicant. Halfway through his first season as starter, redshirt sophomore KirVonte Benson has shown he can handle the demands of the position. The 5-9, 211-pounder, who entered the year with zero career carries, ranks second in the ACC in rushing (108.7 yards/game). After missing the second half of the Miami game due to a lower-body injury, Benson rumbled for 136 yards and a touchdown in Georgia Tech’s 38-24 win over Wake Forest last Saturday. He also had zero negative rushes against a Demon Deacons defense that led the nation in tackles for loss per game.

“Which was amazing, considering the number of people we turned loose up front,” Johnson said on his radio call-in show.

Added the Yellow Jackets’ 10th-year head coach: “He’s still a work in progress blocking. He does some things decent at times. He’s tough. He’s a strong kid. He breaks some tackles and gets a lot of yards after contact.”

After starting his career as an A-back, Benson says he has come to relish the rigors of running inside.

“It’s something that if you just trust it, it can work out. When my time was called to actually step up and be the starting running back, it took a lot of time — not even a lot, just a few plays to actually get it. Now that I’m in tune, now that I know what to do, know what to expect, it just comes second nature now,” he said.

Besides, Benson added, “I’m used to taking a hit.”

*** More than you know, actually. When it comes to Benson’s knack for both taking and delivering punishment, the B-back can tap into a background that not even his Georgia Tech coaches or teammates know about. As a middle schooler, Benson spent almost a year training at a mixed martial arts gym in his hometown of Marietta, Ga.

Even better: he kept it a secret from his parents.

Benson smiled as he recounted the story this week.

“I tried to stay busy as much as I could. I’m not really a person who can sit around and watch TV. That wasn’t really my thing growing up,” he explained.

Benson described himself as an active kid, always eager to challenge himself athletically. Earlier this season, for example, Georgia Tech fans might have noticed him perform a “nip-up” at the end of a first-half run against Pittsburgh. While lying prone on the Bobby Dodd Stadium grass, Benson rolled back onto his shoulders, swung his legs over his chest and thrust himself into a standing position, an acrobatic move more commonly seen in gymnastics or action film fights. Benson said he first saw the maneuver while watching the dance movie You Got Served and taught himself how to do it.

That same athletic curiosity seized him one day as a 13-year-old. Benson said he was walking to a fitness center to play pickup basketball when he passed by a nondescript boxing and MMA gym (he has long since forgotten its name). He noticed a speed bag dangling from a hook.

Tempted, he ducked inside to give it a try.

“I was doing it pretty good. I didn’t have any practice, nothing like that. I just went in there. One of the dudes came up and said, `Are you signed up here?’ I was like, `No, I just wanted to check it out,'” Benson recalled.

The trainer asked Benson if he was interested in a membership, presuming he was 18 or 19 years old. Imagine his surprise when he learned that Benson was still a student at Bear Creek Middle School.

“I had facial hair and all that. I was definitely growing too fast for my own good,” Benson said, estimating that he weighed around 190 pounds at the time.

Impressed, the trainer invited him back for a couple of sparring sessions. He gave Benson protective headgear and small, open-fingered MMA gloves and paired him with some older students. The sparring took place inside a boxing ring, but takedowns were allowed.

Benson’s skills were raw, but stepping inside a ring for the first time, fending off strikes and takedowns, he felt an undeniable rush of adrenaline. The trainer also noticed he had some natural ability.

“He’s like, `Wow, you can take a hit, but you can give one? You’re getting back up. Are you sure you haven’t thought about doing this for career?'” Benson remembered.

“He told me I’m a freak of nature. `You’re a strong kid, you might want to look into this.’ I said yeah, but my mother would not allow this.”

So Benson did the next logical thing: he signed up anyway and didn’t tell his mom. His older brother, Damier, signed his permission form.

“If he wants to do something, I’m behind him 100 percent. If he says [he] can do it, and it’s not going to interfere with my schooling… I’m completely behind it,” recalled Damier, an MMA fan himself who was about to leave for Air Force basic training in Texas.

For the next year – usually once a week, depending on the sports season – Benson would rendezvous to the gym to learn the finer arts of sparring, grappling and submissions. He honed his southpaw stance, learned how to keep his guard up and practiced his takedowns and escapes. He sparred with older students, around 16 or 17 years old — though, as Benson points out, he was usually bigger than them.

“There are so many ways you can hurt someone with their own body, it’s amazing. I never knew. You can arm-bar somebody. Pressure points hurt if you twist them in a different way. A lot of full-nelson maneuvers. I didn’t get too in-depth with it but at the time, it was amazing,” Benson said.

Benson used the MMA gym to stay in shape, not to prepare for any future fights in the octagon. He already had a full schedule with basketball and track (he didn’t start playing football competitively until 10th grade). His parents never questioned his whereabouts; they figured their son was either training or at practice. As long as he wasn’t getting in trouble and returned home at the appointed hour, they didn’t mind. And Benson more than held his own on the mat, allowing him to keep his clandestine training a secret.

“I never really had any bruises — until that one time,” he admitted.

One day, he said, he came home with his left shoulder hurting, the result of a harder-than-expected takedown at the MMA gym. A few extra bruises mottled his skin.

“With the adrenaline, I didn’t really feel it until [afterwards]. Kind of like every game now,” he explained.

His mom, Diana Pitts-Benson, wondered why his shoulder hurt during track season.

“Did you fall running hurdles?” she asked. KirVonte said he had done some wrestling at his middle school that day. It seemed like a plausible explanation — his school had a wrestling team.

“But you don’t wrestle,” his mom replied.

Benson never actually confessed to where he was or what he had been doing. Regardless, the jig was up. His mother admonished him not to wrestle again. Basketball was his passion at the time – he later earned four varsity letters at Marietta High School – and she worried her son would injure himself unnecessarily.

Benson obliged. His MMA career officially ended in submission.

***

Almost a decade has passed, but Benson still looks back fondly on his dalliance with mixed martial arts training. He loves watching UFC stars Anderson Silva and Conor McGregor. He believes his training helped him early on with his balance and ability to stay upright after a hit, skills that have served him well at B-back.

Until this week, none of Benson’s teammates knew about his mixed martial arts experience. When apprised of it Tuesday, quarterback TaQuon Marshall said it made sense given some of the highlights he’s seen.

“It probably explains some of the crazy balance plays that he has,” Marshall theorized. “I’ve seen him to the point where he’s almost doing a back bend, on his tippy toes, and he balances himself by pushing himself off the ground. I’ve seen some crazy stuff on film with KirVonte running. It doesn’t surprise me at all now.”

And what does his head coach think?

“I think he’s probably in the right sport,” said Johnson.

And like any proud fighter, Benson looks forward to facing off against a champion this weekend. Benson and the 4-2 Yellow Jackets head to Memorial Stadium on Saturday to battle defending national champion Clemson, who is coming off their first loss of the season (8 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network). In their last two meetings, the Tigers have held the Jackets to 71 and 95 rushing yards, the two lowest totals in the Paul Johnson era.

“It’s going to be hard getting through them big boys,” he said.

But Benson expects a fight. And, more than most, he has experience.

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