WVU Linebacker Recalls Career, Taking Leadership Reins After Cactus Victory
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Al-Rasheed Benton inherited a mantle of sorts two seasons ago after West Virginia’s victory in the Cactus Bowl.
With a trio of graduating linebackers in Nick Kwiatkoski, Jared Barber and Shaq Pettaway, the heart of the defense was searching for a leader, and the upperclassmen recognized the person with the best fit wasn’t a rising senior. Wasn’t, in fact, even an upperclassmen.
“Barber jumped into the stands and was hugging fans and giving high fives out and I remember the joy and the excitement on his face,” said Benton, recalling the come-from-behind 43-42 win over Arizona State out in the desert. “I walked up to him and he told me ‘This is your team now. This is your defense. I know you have what it takes to run it.’ That moment…I anticipate mine being the same. I’ve thought about it ever since.”
Benton will have that same talk following West Virginia’s Heart of Dallas bowl game against Utah. The hope is the player bequeathed the honors will attach themselves to what that leadership role means as much as Benton, who has been a fixture as team captain and an inspirational and emotional mentor who leads primarily by example.
“I had that conversation with (Barber) and then I went in the locker room and after the game coach (Tony) Gibson goes around and gives all the guys a handshake,” Benton said. “He told me the same thing, he said ‘This is your baby now. I’m going to expect a lot out of you; I’m expecting you to be a mike linebacker.’ Putting that kind of pressure on me made me better. I like playing under pressure and being put under pressure.
“I remember how much faith those guys had in me and how much trust they had in me. To know that I gave it my all and I have been able to do some great things with coach Gibson in these years, it’s a great feeling. I am sad to see it come to an end, but I’m happy I had this opportunity.”
Benton enters his final game having played in every career contest since his redshirt season in 2013. That number will total 52, or 13 games in each of his four seasons, meaning the Mountaineers made a bowl every year. He will exit with at least 32 wins, 209 career tackles, 18 tackles for loss and many more friends, memories and milestones than he ever could have imagined when being recruited out of Shabazz High in Newark, N.J.
And that mantle he carried for two seasons, the one that remains as untarnished as it was when Barber handed it down through the ranks? Benton knows exactly who the next man up is, to use WVU’s defensive mantra at times. It’s a good choice, too. After all, the player was named the Mountaineers’ Defensive Player of the Year, an honor that ranks right there with Benton’s Captain’s Award and team captain honors.
“David,” Benton said of sophomore linebacker David Long, a player Gibson calls one of the finest he’s every coached. “I was coming into my junior year when I had that conversation. Being a leader has nothing to do with seniority or anything like that. It’s the mentality you bring every day and what you demand out of your teammates and what you allow your teammates to bring out in you. That’s what be brings, that fire of everyday. You match that with his playmaking ability and he is definitely a great leader.
“(The bowl) is an opportunity to propel these guys into next year. Just because I am not on the team next year doesn’t mean that I am not a part of it. I want to do everything I can to put them into the best position to be successful going into this offseason, so this is a big step.”
And some big shoes to fill.